OPINION: Criticism of Swiss refugee response lacks perspective

Clare O'Dea
Clare O'Dea - [email protected] • 28 Mar, 2022 Updated Mon 28 Mar 2022 10:51 CEST
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Ukrainian refugees exit a plane chartered by a Swiss millionaire at Zurich Airport, on March 22, 2022. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

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?

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. 

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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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Clare O'Dea 2022/03/28 10:51

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