Council of Europe attacks racism in Switzerland

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Foreign Affairs  
Steps have been taken to help immigrants enter the workforceImage Caption:

Steps have been taken to help immigrants enter the workforce (Severin Nowacki)

Racism is widespread in Switzerland, despite authorities' continuing efforts to end discrimination, a Council of Europe commission has found.

A report highlights problems of direct racial discrimination in gaining access to employment, housing, goods and services. The victims are mainly Muslims and originate from the Balkans, Turkey and Africa.

The findings published on Tuesday in a report compiled by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), chart the progress made by Switzerland in implementing recommendations for action in curbing racism made in 2004.

Anti-racism bodies within Switzerland mainly agreed with the findings, but the report was lambasted by the rightwing Swiss People's Party, which was singled out for criticism for promoting racist generalisations.

On the plus side, the ECRI noted that various measures had been taken to foster the integration of immigrants in areas such as employment, housing and health. State bodies for anti-racism and migration had continued to raise awareness of racism and racial discrimination and steps had been taken to combat rightwing extremism.

However, it noted there had been a dangerous growth of racist political discourse against foreign nationals, Muslims, blacks and other minorities. The ECRI found the Swiss People's Party to be part of the problem, saying the party had taken on a "racist and xenophobic tone" in recent years, leading to racist generalisations.

"Repeated attacks by Swiss People's Party members against foreigners' fundamental rights and against the prohibition of racism and xenophobia have created a deep sense of unease in Swiss society generally and especially in minority communities," the report said.

Immigrant children have disadvantages in education, some Swiss media have reinforced racist stereotypes, and neo-Nazi and far-right groups have been active in the country.

Finally, the report said legislation had not been adequately developed to deal with direct racial discrimination.

Constructive criticism

It recommended more training in anti-racism laws for police and judges and better resources for anti-discrimination bodies. Swiss authorities should also step up efforts to combat racism in public discourse and review the effectiveness of their integration measures.

The Federal Commission against Racism said it shared the report's criticism of the "vilification" of immigrants and religious minorities as well as the lack of protection from discrimination. The commission said it too had observed that migrant groups were attacked during political campaigns and xenophobic speeches had been tolerated.

The commission added that it would publish its own recommendations into toughening laws against discrimination later this year.

Michael Chiller-Glaus of the non-governmental foundation against racism and anti-Semitism told the report was "fair and balanced" and contained "constructive criticism", but it showed Switzerland still had some way to go to counter racism.

"The report rightly notes that progress has been made in reducing racism in Switzerland. Nevertheless, there is a need for further campaigns to sensitise the public to various aspects of racism and discrimination that still persists."

"Public funds to finance such campaigns have noticeably been reduced in recent years, as has been the support for efficient non-governmental organisations tackling racism. This is an objectionable development playing into the hands of the political rightwing mentioned in the report."

International interference?

The Swiss People's Party responded saying the report was flawed as it had misunderstood its policies, which were not against foreigners per se but rather foreign criminals and those who refused to follow Swiss laws.

"We understand: it is easier to blame the People's Party for alleged xenophobia than to reflect the real issue of foreign criminals," the party said in a statement. It called on the government to reject such "interference" in Switzerland's internal affairs.

"International organisations, spurred on by the Swiss political left, regularly criticise us."

The Swiss Refugee Council agreed with the report overall and told the government needed to improve communication about its asylum policies before public opinion and discrimination could change.

"Public opinion is so poisoned by this dialogue that asylum and refugees are a problem that it is very difficult to get away from this. You need to start again with a totally new communication. If you want to stop asylum seekers being seen as a problem then you need to communicate in a totally different way, you need to show positive examples of integration," said the Council's Susanna Bolz.

Jessica Dacey,

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