Swiss Cold War bunkers back in vogue as Ukraine conflict rages

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has reawakened interest in Switzerland's concrete nuclear fallout shelters, built during the Cold War with enough space to shelter everyone in the country.

The entrance of Deltalis Swiss Mountain Data Center, a former Swiss Army bunker
The entrance of Deltalis Swiss Mountain Data Center, a former Swiss Army bunker built in the Alps during the Cold War, is seen on November 18, 2013 near Attinghausen, Central Switzerland. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI 

Since the 1960s, every Swiss municipality has had to build nuclear bunkers for their residents, while such shelters have also been mandatory in all homes and residential buildings over a certain size built since then.

The shelters have become an integral part of the Swiss identity, on a par with the country’s famous chocolate, banks and watches.

But the underground spaces, long seen as a quirky curiosity mostly used for storage or as very well-protected wine cellars, are being viewed in a new light since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Just days into the attack, Russian President Vladimir Putin put the country’s strategic nuclear forces on high alert, sparking global alarm.

Fierce fighting near Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, including Chernobyl — the sight of the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986 — have also heightened fears that even traditionally neutral Switzerland could be affected by the war.

READ MORE: What are Switzerland’s nuclear bunkers and does each home need one?

‘Ukraine is very nearby’
“People are discovering that Ukraine is very nearby,” Marie Claude Noth-Ecoeur, who heads civil and military security services in the mountainous southern Wallis region, told AFP.

The wealthy Alpine country has pledged that each and every resident will have a shelter space if needed.

In fact, the country of 8.6 million people counts nearly nine million spaces across 365,000 private and public shelters.

But while there are more than enough spots at a national level, there are vast regional differences.

Geneva is worst off, with only enough places for 75 percent of its population.

Nicola Squillaci, head of Geneva’s civil protection and military affairs division, said the shelters were conceived to provide protection “especially in the case of a bombing and a nuclear attack”.

They would help protect the population “against the shock waves, and against radioactivity in the air”, he told AFP.

Ducking into a private shelter for around 150 people, underneath a brand new residential building in the Geneva suburb of Meyrin, Squillaci pointed out how, in peace time, it was equipped with basement storage units for the apartment dwellers above.

But unlike most storage facilities, this one comes with composting toilets, kits for quickly assembling beds, and a ventilation system that filters the air coming in from the outside.

People walk in a corridor of the Deltalis Swiss Mountain Data Center, a former Swiss Army bunker

People walk in a corridor of the Deltalis Swiss Mountain Data Center, a former Swiss Army bunker built in the Alps during the Cold War. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI 
“It is like a capsule, with airlocks on emergency exits and main exits,” Squillaci said.

“If the building were to collapse, the shelter would remain intact.”

Switzerland’s vast network of nuclear bunkers have a range of other day-to-day uses, including as military barracks or as temporary accommodation for asylum seekers.

But Swiss authorities require that they can be emptied and reverted back to nuclear shelters within five days.

Coffee, opiates and nuclear fuel: What are Switzerland’s ‘strategic stockpiles’?

So far, Switzerland’s population has never been ordered down into the shelters, not even in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster.

Experts say the most likely scenario for needing to use them has always been a possible accident at one of Switzerland’s own nuclear power plants.

But now the conflict raging in Ukraine has added a new, urgent layer to the national nuclear anxiety.

With public concern growing, Swiss authorities have published overviews of the available shelter spots, and have urged households to always maintain a stock of food to last at least a week.

With Ukraine, “the geopolitical situation has altered the paradigms a bit,” Squillaci said, adding that authorities were receiving “enormous numbers of llegitimate questions from citizens.”

A number of property owners who previously sought to pay a fine rather than build bunkers were also backtracking, he said.

‘Temporary protection’
To compensate for the lack of shelters under chalets and other traditional mountain homes, Alpine cantons like Wallis meanwhile rely heavily on large collective bunkers.

In Evionnaz, a municipality with around 1,000 inhabitants, the collective shelter can accommodate around 700 people, counting 15 dormitories filled with row after row of three-storey bunk beds.

“The country asks us to be on the ready,” Noth-Ecoeur said.

“Today we are in a preparatory phase, and we are ready to put the shelters to use.”

Experts caution though that the level of protection provided by the shelters in the case of actual nuclear weapons use would depend heavily on the intensity and proximity of the strikes.

“The shelters could offer the population a certain level of temporary protection against radioactive events,” Swiss defence ministry spokesman Andreas Bucher told AFP.

“A large-scale nuclear war would however be catastrophic, and no state would be able to guard against the effects.”


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‘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