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UKRAINE

Why Ukrainian refugees cannot trade their currency for Swiss francs

Ukrainian refugees arriving in Switzerland have been unable to convert their currency to Swiss francs, adding another challenge to a difficult and dangerous journey. Here’s why - and whether it might change.

Colourful Swiss franc notes against a white background. Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash
Colourful Swiss franc notes against a white background. Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

Switzerland has opened itself up to Ukrainians since Russia first invaded in late February, with an estimated 26,000 arriving in the country so far. 

The country created a new permit system to allow Ukrainians to stay, work and study, while thousands of families have pledged to open their homes to refugees. 

Switzerland’s reception has been so positive that some have criticised the Swiss for preferential treatment when compared to other refugee influxes. 

OPINION: Criticism of Swiss refugee response lacks perspective

Can Ukrainians exchange their currency in Switzerland? 

Those arriving in Switzerland however face a major hurdle, in that Swiss banks are not allowing them to exchange their hryvnia for francs. 

Anyone who approaches a Swiss bank or currency exchange centre anywhere in Switzerland wanting to exchange hryvnia will be rejected. 

Ukrainians can withdraw francs from Swiss ATMs from their Ukrainian accounts, whereby the currency trade will take place automatically, however those seeking to exchange cash will be restricted. 

This is particularly problematic as many Ukrainians withdrew money, sometimes large sums, before they left to prepare for the journey and for settling in at their eventual destination. 

Sasha Volkov, a representative of the Swiss Ukrainian Association, told Switzerland’s Tages Anzeiger newspaper it is a challenging an unexpected hurdle for people who have already endured significant hardships. 

“They left their belongings at home, and even large suitcases found no place in the full trains. Many only came with cash – and cannot buy anything here with it. They didn’t expect that.”

Why won’t Swiss banks exchange Ukrainian currency? 

The Ukrainian currency is rapidly devaluing as a consequence of the war and Swiss banks are reluctant to take on too much hryvnia as they worry it will lose value. 

In the short term, they are also unable to convert the cash due to the war. 

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

In normal times, they would transfer the cash to Ukraine’s central bank in Kyiv, whereby they would receive US dollars, euros or other foreign currencies. 

At present however, Ukraine’s central bank is using its foreign currency reserves to purchase medicines, food and weapons rather than exchange currency. 

Economist Fabio Canetg told Switzerland’s Tages Anzeiger newspaper “Swiss banks have legitimate doubts that they won’t be able to get rid of the Ukrainian money”. 

Will this change anytime soon? 

Fortunately for Ukrainians looking to cover the costs of an expensive move to Switzerland, help may be on the way. 

The Swiss government has called upon the Swiss National Bank and the Department of Finance to find a solution. 

According to a statement, the Federal Council wants to facilitate the “exchange of a limited amount of cash per person… through selected commercial banks”. 

READ MORE: Swiss population supports expanding sanctions on Russia

The eventual proposal will mirror that of the EU, where the EU Commission wants to allow each person to exchange a maximum of 10,000 hryvnia, which is roughly 305 euros or 310 Swiss francs. 

While this amount is relatively minimal in Switzerland, Volkov said it would allow Ukrainians to buy 

“For most people, that will be a sufficient amount to cover basic expenses. People don’t need much.”

“Most people also get support from friends and also receive social assistance as soon as they have protection status S.”

The money would then be bought by the SNB, which would effectively decide to take a loss.

While this amount would eventually be passed on to Swiss taxpayers, the amount would be relatively small and is unlikely to see any significant opposition given the widespread support the Swiss populace has already showed towards Ukrainian refugees. 

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UKRAINE

‘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
 

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