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ANALYSIS: Why do Swiss treat Ukrainians differently than other refugees?

Thousands of Ukrainians have fled their war-torn country to safety and a warm welcome in Switzerland, sparking criticism that they are treated better than other refugees. Is this really the case and if so, why?

ANALYSIS: Why do Swiss treat Ukrainians differently than other refugees?
Most Ukrainian refugees, like on this chartered plane to Zurich, are women and children. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

About 18,000 refugees from Ukraine have arrived in Switzerland so far, with tens of thousands more expected by summer.

Swiss Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter predicted that up to 50,000 people from Ukraine would arrive in the country before June — to date, the highest number of war refugees to enter Switzerland in the 21st century.

READ MORE: Switzerland expects 50,000 Ukrainian refugees by June

Switzerland has not experienced such a massive influx of refugees since 1999, when about 50,000 Kosovars fled their country’s armed conflict with ethnic Serbs and the government of Yugoslavia.

Unfair advantage?

Almost as soon as first waves of Ukrainians started to flee their country after Russian invasion on February 24th, the Federal Council activated a special protection category for them.

The so-called “S” status entitles them to live in Switzerland for one year (possibly longer), work immediately upon arrival, as well as have access to free healthcare and public transportation.

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

By contrast, asylum seekers from other countries — most of whom come from  Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea — are subjected to more stringent rules. For instance, they must prove their refugee status (rather than being merely immigrants) and can’t work during the first three months after filing an asylum application.

They also undergo a more rigorous vetting process: the applicants are fingerprinted and assessed by the Federal Intelligence Service for any links with terrorist or criminal organisations abroad.

Ukrainians, on the other hand, can come to Switzerland more or less unconditionally and are receiving benefits not available to other asylum seekers – a fact that has sparked claims of favouritism and inequality in treatment of refugees.

“It is unfair to discriminate against refugees from other countries. This is in contradiction with a principle of equal treatment”, according to opinion piece in Le Matin newspaper.

Asylum seekers “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?” Miriam Behrens, director of the Swiss Refugee Council, said in an interview with Swiss Public Television.

However, Justice Minister Keller-Sutter denies unequal treatment between people fleeing Ukraine and other refugees in Switzerland.

The S status (which has not been granted to refugees from other nations) helps ensure that the system doesn’t collapse from a massive influx of refugees, Keller-Sutter said, also pointing out that, unlike most other asylum seekers currently in Switzerland, Ukrainians are determined to return to their country.

“We have to learn to make allowances,” she added.

For its part, the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), explains that the situation in Ukraine “is quite different” than elsewhere.

“A European country has been invaded and war is raging. Under status S, refugees can be helped quickly and with a minimum of bureaucracy without overburdening the Swiss asylum system”.

“This ensures that the asylum system continues to function and that refugees from Ukraine receive the protection they need quickly and with a solid legal basis”.

This is especially important as the vast majority of those escaping from Ukraine are women and young children.

Le Matin wrote that the resentment of “perks” Ukrainians are receiving should be viewed in a wider perspective. 

“Ukrainians are war refugees with little [money] left to live on. It should also be noted that Ukraine is a relatively poor country; its GDP per capita is $3,725, while Switzerland’s is $87,000. Therefore, we do not give them gifts, we help them”.

So is Switzerland’s (different) treatment of Ukrainian refugees justified?

Drawing parallels between the current treatment of Ukrainian refugees and those from other conflicts, most recently the Syrian Civil War, does not result in a like-for-like comparison. 

The conflict is on Switzerland’s doorstep, while an estimated 6,500 Ukrainians lived in Switzerland before the conflict broke out. 

Benedict Neff, writing in Switzerland’s NZZ, said the situation and those arriving are “fundamentally different” than those who came in the previous wave in 2015-16, as all adult men under 60 are required to stay and fight. 

“The conditions are now fundamentally different. This is mainly due to the refugees themselves. They are mainly women and children. And European neighbours.”

“Kyiv is closer to us than Damascus – anyone who sees a scandal in the different empathy and willingness to take in refugees is lying to themselves.”

Neff also highlights that Europe – from conservative Poland and Hungary to liberal Germany and the Netherlands – see a common enemy in Putin. 

Another aspect to consider is the Swiss people’s position on the Ukraine conflict, which differs significantly from other flash points such as the Syrian Civil War. 

While the Syrian conflict was complicated, protracted and involved countless state and non-state belligerents, Russia’s unilateral invasion of Ukraine – and Ukraine’s staunch defence of its own soil – has left little doubt in the minds as to the nature of the aggressor. 

Switzerland’s decision to join EU sanctions has won widespread support among the populace, while six in ten residents of the famously neutral country support tightening sanctions on Russia

READ MORE: How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already changed Switzerland

Maintaining a welcoming attitude towards Ukrainian refugees also has a strategic military advantage, as Putin is hoping to leverage anti-refugee sentiment in Europe in the same way that Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done since 2015. 

Writing in the NZZ, Peter Rasonyi argues that the “new European refugee crisis is part of Putin’s war calculations”, saying the Russian leader knew it would put pressure on European countries in a manner similar the war in Syria. 

Rasonyi argues the international community should remember Putin’s actions well into the future when weighing up the removal of sanctions. 

“[N]o one in Western Europe can shirk responsibility now: the war in Ukraine is not raging somewhere far away, it is taking place in the heart of Europe.”

“It is the first duty of all Europeans to show solidarity and provide safe and dignified housing for war refugees. This time, no neighbouring country like Turkey or Lebanon stands between us and the tragedy. We as neighbours have a duty, there are no excuses.”

READ MORE: OPINION: Criticism of Swiss refugee response lacks perspective

Member comments

  1. Common characteristic.European.
    The root is Christianity.
    Why treated differently? Easier to integrate.

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For members


‘Limited capacity’: How the Swiss right wants to shut out western Ukrainian refugees

With about 51,000 refugees from Ukraine currently in Switzerland, right-wing politicians argue in favour of introducing geographic vetting in regards to who can qualify for Status S, saying Switzerland has "limited capacity" for refugees.

'Limited capacity': How the Swiss right wants to shut out western Ukrainian refugees

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, the Federal Council activated, for the first time ever, the ‘S status’ authorising Ukrainians and Ukraine residents fleeing the war to live temporarily in Switzerland.

The special status is initially valid for a year, but can be extended. Anyone who is still in Switzerland after five years receives a B permit.

Included is also the right to work, as well as free health care and language courses. The refugees also have the right to free public transportation, but this perk will end on May 31st, with no word yet whether it will be renewed.

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

Now, however, “the great solidarity with refugees from Ukraine is cracking”, according to SonntagsZeitung, which reports that rightwing politicians in Switzerland are “beginning to question our country’s culture of hospitality”.

The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has consistently opposed sanctions on Russia, is calling on the government to limit the S status  only to Ukrainians who come from the eastern part of the country, which is currently most impacted by Russia’s invasion.  

This movement is spearheaded by MP Martina Bircher, who argues that Switzerland is reaching its limits in terms of the number of refugees it can accommodate and support, and it should therefore grant S status only to those fleeing the most conflict-ridden regions of Ukraine, like the eastern part.

Other right-of-centre groups are in favour of this “regionalisation” as well. Andrea Caroni, president of the centre-right Liberal Party, supports the idea of granting the special status based on the geographical evolution of the Ukrainian conflict, saying Switzerland “ultimately has limited capacity” to absorb refugees from Ukraine. 

He said, however, that such a measure “must be coordinated at the European level.”

Not everyone, however, agrees with Bircher’s proposal.

According to Gerhard Pfister, president of the Centre Party, adopting geographical limitations “would create two classes of Ukrainians. This is not right”.

It is unclear how the SVP would seek to draw barriers to distinguish between the east and west of the country. 

As for the Conference of Cantonal Directors of Social Affairs, vice-president Marianne Lienhard said the organisaton will discuss the proposal at its next meeting at the end of May.

Cantons are directly affected by the influx of Ukrainians, as they will eventually bear the cost of supporting the refugees — the cost which is currently borne mostly at a federal level.

The “NZZ am Sonntag” calculated that in 2022, the costs of housing, health insurance, and general support will amount to between 1.25 and 2.25 billion francs. In 2023, these expenses could climb to 7.5 billion.

“Fake” refugees

In an article she wrote for the SVP website, Bircher also argued that some refugees pretending to be Ukrainian actually aren’t.

As an MP from Aargau, she claims that out of 12 people who received the S status in a small town in her canton, only seven were Ukrainian nationals. The other five came from Africa.

Among them are  “Kenyan and Lebanese men who claim to have lived in Ukraine or who actually lived there before the war, but who do not have a Ukrainian passport”.

The S permit scheme does not only provide protection for Ukrainian citizens, but also citizens of other countries who live in Ukraine. 

While reserved predominantly for Ukrainians, the S status has also been occasionally granted to citizens of other countries. 

According to the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), about 1,000 “other” refugees received this status as well, including 238 Russians, and  people from Germany, France, Italy, the United States, Canada and Australia.

In such cases, children have a different passport from their parents, but it is the parents’ nationality and place of residence that defines whether the status is granted.

So it could happen that the parents have Ukrainian passports, while their children are citizens of other nations.

READ MORE: Swiss MPs call for Russian money to be used to reconstruct Ukraine