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UKRAINE

Ukraine war drives sudden demand for bomb shelters in Switzerland

Companies that build and repair bomb shelters in Switzerland are being overwhelmed with enquiries since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Demand is so high that raw materials for the shelters are in short supply.

Nuclear bunkers in Switzerland have often become storage areas. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
Nuclear bunkers in Switzerland have often become storage areas. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Residents of Switzerland or even visitors will have noticed the yellow nuclear shelter signs that dot the country’s homes and buildings. 

This is not only due to a Swiss sense of preparation and pragmatism, but actually has its origins in a law which mandated nuclear shelters across the country (discussed below). 

In the six weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, companies have reported a dramatic increase in enquiries and requests for nuclear shelters to be built or renovated. 

Reader question: Where is my nearest nuclear shelter in Switzerland?

Swiss news outlet 20 Minutes reports that companies have been “overwhelmed with enquiries”. 

Mengeu AG, a shelter company in the canton of Zurich, told 20 Minutes there had been a “massive increase” since the start of the war, with customers wanting to make sure their shelters are ready and effective should they be needed. 

“People notice that they have a shelter in the house and want to have it repaired so that it would be ready to move into again in an emergency,” Managing Director Christoph Singer told 20 Minutes. 

“But some customers also wanted to know what they would have to take with them to the shelter and whether they could take their pets with them,” says Singer.

Thomas Kull, who heads up shelter company Lunor, said people want to know if their shelters have any defects. 

“Many of these small shelters in single-family homes were built in the 1960s to 1980s and are therefore 40 to 60 years old. From a technical point of view, these systems have reached the end of their lifetime.”

READ MORE: Inside Switzerland’s largest nuclear bunker – 40 years on

A result was a surge in demand for raw materials, some of which came from areas now swept up in the war. 

“In addition to the already tense situation due to the corona pandemic, we now need raw materials in Europe that were previously supplied from Ukraine and/or Russia.”

Liliane Staub, from G. Bühler GmbH in Bern, said the war had led to a dramatic change in attitudes. 

“Just a month ago we were smiled at during the shelter checks. Now people are beating down our doors” she told 20 Minutes. 

What are the rules for nuclear shelters in Switzerland? 

50 years ago, at the height of the Cold War, the government saw nuclear war and invasion as possible scenarios — so much so, that it passed a legislation in 1963 requiring nuclear shelters in all residential buildings. 

They were to be used “during an armed conflict, especially one involving weapons of mass destruction”, according to the Federal Office of Civil Protection (FOCP), which added that these bunkers “provide a basic form of protection against a wide range of direct and indirect arms impact”. 

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

At present these structures are no longer compulsory in single-family houses, though the law stipulates that each resident “should be guaranteed a shelter in the vicinity of her/his place of residence”.

Today, Switzerland has 360,000 communal shelters able to accommodate the entire population in case of need.

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For members

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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