OPINION: Criticism of Swiss refugee response lacks perspective

In the space of a month, Switzerland has registered almost as many asylum seekers from one single country – Ukraine – as it usually accepts in a year from all countries combined. How has the alpine nation responded to Europe’s largest refugee crisis since the Second World War?

Ukrainian refugees exit a plane chartered by a Swiss millionaire at Zurich Airport, on March 22, 2022. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP
Ukrainian refugees exit a plane chartered by a Swiss millionaire at Zurich Airport, on March 22, 2022. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

A massive adjustment is taking place. Ten days before Russia began its extensive invasion of Ukraine, the Swiss Secretariat for Migration (SEM) had estimated that Switzerland would see an intake of 16,500 new asylum seekers in the whole of 2022. 

But in the intervening weeks, the continent has changed, and 10 million people have fled their homes because of the war in Ukraine, 3.4 million of whom have left the country so far – most sheltered by neighbouring countries.

Switzerland registered 16,520 Ukrainian refugees up to 28 March.

The extraordinary situation has provoked an extraordinary response. Ukrainian refugees have all automatically been granted the right to remain in Switzerland for a year, so-called protection status ‘S’.

In addition, the refugees have been granted free travel on public transport until the end of May, free medical treatment and free mobile phone accounts. 

Switzerland’s special ‘S permit’ visa program: What Ukrainians need to know

On a community level, more than 28,000 Swiss households have so far come forward offering to host refugees, according to the Swiss Refugee Council. The placements are proceeding as quickly as possible through the cantonal authorities. 

Some perspective seems to be missing from the political commentary on the crisis. It must be remembered that Switzerland is by far not bearing the brunt of this crisis though it has much greater resources than the countries who are in that position.

The arrivals so far in Switzerland are a drop in the ocean compared to the numbers of refugees hosted in countries bordering Ukraine, particularly Poland and Moldova. 

Whatever the complaints are now, we also need to be aware that more refugees are coming. As the countries neighbouring Ukraine struggle to cope, more people will keep coming farther westwards, seeking stability and basic services. No upper limit has yet been placed on the Swiss intake by the SEM.  

Criticism of the Swiss response seems to focus on details rather than the big picture – with little awareness of historical precedent.

On the one hand, there are accusations that the special treatment being shown to Ukrainians is unfair. The co-president of the Social Democratic Party, for instance, took aim at the free transport offer. 

A young Ukrainian refugee boards a plane headed to Zurich from Krakow. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

A young Ukrainian refugee boards a plane headed to Zurich from Krakow. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

Writing on Facebook, Cédric Wermuth said he welcomed the offer of free public transport but found it problematic because the reasons given for the exceptional offer applied to almost everyone else going through the asylum process. 

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“Just because they unfortunately had to flee here from war or persecution from another place, they don’t have this privilege. That includes, for example, also Russian opposition figures,” Wermuth wrote. His remarks were widely reported. 

This criticism seems blind to the scale, timespan and geography of the Ukrainian situation. Ukrainian refugees only have to pass through two countries to reach Switzerland. They are coming anyway and preparations have to be made. The Swiss policy is in line with the EU response. 

The S permit decision has also been criticised for unfairness. The S permit is limited to one year but it can be extended. Permit S holders are allowed to take up employment, including self-employment. 

According to the SEM, “the granting of protection status S to Ukrainian refugees is intended to prevent the Swiss asylum system from becoming overstretched”. 

Some advocates in the asylum sector speak more openly of racism, for example Miriam Behrens, director of the Swiss Refugee Council. In an interview with Swiss Public Television, she said other asylum seekers could not help but compare their experience to that of the Ukrainians. 

“They see that people from other war zones have more rights. The first thing they think is: Could this be about skin colour? Or country of origin?” The top three countries of origin of asylum seekers in Switzerland over the past decade have been Eritrea (47,537 people since 2010), Afghanistan and Syria. 

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There are also teething problems in the provision of financial and other support to the new arrivals that have led to frustration on the part of some host families. Households are only entitled to receive a symbolic contribution towards their hospitality. Some may have not have realised this.

There is no doubt that a huge amount of goodwill is being shown to the Ukrainian refugees, both on an official and personal level. So how different is this to previous waves of refugees in the past?

Some 30,000 people found refuge in Switzerland during the 1992–1995 Bosnian war and a further 50,000 during the 1998–1999 Kosovo war.

But to find the best comparison, with the same concentrated time frame, warm welcome and political hue, you have to go back to the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968. These crises were also linked to the old animosity between Western Europe and the repressive regimes behind the then Iron Curtain.

In 1956, Switzerland accepted a contingent of 14,000 Hungarians out of an estimated total of 180,000 who left the country within a matter of days. They were greeted with open arms and chocolate. Switzerland accepted a contingent of 11,000 refugees again from Czechoslovakia in 1968 at the time of the Prague Spring. 

Apart from Ukrainians, most of the asylum seekers arriving in Switzerland over the past decade come from countries enduring long-standing conflict and repression. We can only hope that Ukraine will not gradually slip into the same category where sympathy and urgency inevitably fade away. 

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OPINION: Why Switzerland needs to scrap its fabled 1,000 franc notes

If the Americans can get by with $100 bills, the British manage with £50 and EU citizens now mostly €200, why do the Swiss need such a large denomination? The answer is, they don’t, writes Clare O'Dea, as she explains why it should be binned.

OPINION: Why Switzerland needs to scrap its fabled 1,000 franc notes

The existence of the 1,000-franc note, so blatantly open to misuse, is justified with platitudes about the Swiss liking cash.

Apparently the 1,000-franc note is quite pretty but I can’t say for sure as I’ve never seen or touched one. With the exception of Singapore and Brunei, no other country sees fit to issue such a large-denomination note for the simple reason that it’s not needed for legitimate business.

Financial secrecy is obviously a big part of the appeal of the 1,000-franc note. To say otherwise is not really credible. Cash in this condensed form is anonymous, untraceable, easily transportable, easily concealed.

As Bradley Birkenfeld said in a 2015 CNBC interview, “I mean you could put half a million in your pocket, no problem”. Remember that name? Birkenfeld was the (in)famous UBS whistleblower who exposed the bank’s shady practices to the US authorities in 2007, triggering the dismantling of Swiss banking secrecy.

The Swiss National Bank (SNB) explains that the big note is used as a “store of value” to a considerable degree. What does that mean? The SNB’s own research shows that most people keep less than 1,000 francs in cash at home. Are we talking about storing value under the mattress or in a safe deposit box?  Who does that and for what reason?

Look, I’m sure there are people with 1,000 notes squirrelled around the place who run their finances in a totally clean and honest way. The latest SNB survey on payment methods found that half of the population had been in possession of at least one 1,000-franc note over the previous two years. The note is especially popular among men over the age of 55

But inevitably there are tax evaders, money launderers and other criminals who find the big notes come in very handy. The €500 note was scrapped after 17 years mainly because of its popularity with criminal gangs in the EU and beyond, to the extent that it had become an embarrassment.

The €500 note is still legal tender but no new notes have been issued in the euro zone since 2019, following the decision by the European Central Bank. The move came after serious concerns were expressed by academics, international police agencies and EU finance ministers.

When production of the €500 note officially ceased, the largest denomination note accounted for 20 per cent of the value of all euro notes in circulation. Doesn’t it seem odd that 60 per cent of the value of all francs in circulation are in 1,000-franc notes? That’s 9.4 per cent of all physical notes. Something doesn’t add up.

I have heard people argue that 1,000-franc notes are popular for big expenses, like buying a car or jewellery. Or for paying big bills over the counter at the post office (this I have seen). Rumour has it that farmers like to buy livestock with the purple polymer and paper mix. Each to his own.

But these financial practices are fast becoming dated and are anyway not common enough to explain the volume of 1,000 notes in circulation. Yes, it’s official: cash is no longer king in Switzerland.

As recently as 2017, some 70 per cent of non-recurring payments were made in cash, purchases like clothes, the supermarket shopping, or restaurant meals, according to the SNB survey on payment methods. This had reduced to 43 per cent by 2020, the last time the survey was carried out.

The most recent data on payment behaviour comes from the Swiss Payment Monitor, a joint research project between the University of St. Gallen and the ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences, which reported in August of this year.

The study found that the debit card remains the most frequently used form of payment for face-to-face business (34.8 per cent), followed by cash (33.2). Credit cards are less popular at 16.5 per cent. Meanwhile mobile payments are growing in popularity, increasing share from 1.5 per cent of transactions to 11.2 per cent over the past five years. 

What this boils down to is that people are perfectly adept at paying electronically in all kinds of ways and the role of the 1,000-note in retail or person-to-person purchases is far from essential.

While we’re on the subject of money, this month saw the release of the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, in which Switzerland emerged as the world’s richest country. The average wealth of adult residents in this country is 672,508 francs, up 5.4 per cent from the previous year. Assets include stocks and shares, pensions savings, and property.

In case you’re feeling left out, the median wealth per adult in Switzerland is 165,266 francs. That means half of the population possesses less than this amount. The figures are skewed upwards by a smallish number of mega rich individuals, with a little help from the 1.1 million millionaires in Switzerland. My guess is that these two groups have the most use for the 1,000-franc notes.

Reading between the lines, I sense some national pride in the attachment to this world-beating high denomination note. Swiss people like to hold cash – that’s our way. We also like our privacy – so what!

Not to spoil the fun, but all cultures need to be aware that just because they’ve always done something a certain way does not mean the practice has merit and is worth preserving. I recommend taking a long, hard look at the legitimacy of the fabled 1,000-franc note.