Switzerland is, per capita, one of the wealthiest countries in the world with a strong humanitarian tradition. It boasts an outstanding, well-organized and robust NGO community that is eager and willing to help. external link
Compared with its per-capita wealth, Switzerland can accept many more refugees than it currently does. Asylum applications have dropped, hitting a 12-year low in 2019. Switzerland has begun an overseas resettlement program, which is great, but the numbers are still extremely modest. If Switzerland were to accept 5,000 refugees from Moria as an emergency measure, this would represent a population increase of significantly less than one tenth of one percent. It is wonderful that Switzerland is preparing to take in 22 unaccompanied minors, but let us appreciate for a moment how very small that number is. It is smaller than a classroom, less than one child per Swiss canton.
To put these numbers in perspective, in 2017, 84% of the world’s refugees lived in developing countries,external link while the countries with 57% of the world’s GDP had less than 9% of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers. In 2018external link, Lebanon hosted 156 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants, Jordan hosted 72 per 1,000, and Turkey 45 per 1,000. In contrast, high-income countries, of which Switzerland is one, host on average about 2.7 refugees per 1,000 people (though Sweden hosted an impressive 25 per 1,000). These disparities do not even take into account the differences in per-capita wealth between Switzerland and countries in the developing world.
Unfortunately, public perception is radically out of line with these relatively small numbers. From the salience of discussions of refugee integration challenges in the Swiss press, one would think that Switzerland had a much larger population of refugees than it does.
Some politicians have expressed the position that Switzerland should not “go it alone”. external linkBut this concern is misguided and has been criticizedexternal link as merely an excuse.external link Indeed, the opposite is true. This is a classic collective action problem. If the refugees in the Greek camps were distributed equitably among the countries of Europe, there would be more than enough room external linkand ability to integrate them, but no single country wants to commit to taking in a significant number of refugees without assurances that its neighbors will also do so. Switzerland, with its humanitarian tradition, high per-capita wealth, strong NGO community, relatively small number of refugees, independence from the EU, and excellent international reputation, should lead the way. By accepting its fair share of refugees, Switzerland would demonstrate its solidarity with the poorer countries of the EU, like Greece and Italy, who have a disproportionate number of refugees relative to their resources, and set an example to the rest of Europe.
Contact with refugees
When I hear anti-refugee sentiment in Switzerland, I often wonder if the speaker has any direct experience with refugees. external linkHave they seen the families and young men joking around over coffee and cookies with the Swiss ladies who teach German at our neighborhood church? Do they know people like the young man with impeccable manners whom I tutored, who studied computer science in Afghanistan, speaks excellent German, worked as a cleaner in a restaurant, and spent every spare moment studying English so that he could win a coveted spot in the Powercodersexternal link IT training program? Have they eaten dinnerexternal link with a refugee? Do they know young people like the college students in the US and here in Switzerland who are so academically promising? What about the network of Syrian refugees in Geneva and Lausanne external linkwho volunteer to run errands for elderly and infirm Swiss to keep them safe from Covid-19?
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