Geneva diplomats warn over local security

In canton Geneva local crime rose 18 per cent last year Keystone

Geneva police have set up a special street crime unit and more officers are planned to combat a local crime wave. Yet certain foreign diplomats say more must be done and warn insecurity is threatening the city’s image.

This content was published on June 12, 2012 minutes
Simon Bradley and Kuniko Satonobu,

Geneva is regularly ranked in the top ten of quality-of-living listings and viewed as one of the safest cities in the world. But it continues to hold the top spot as the Swiss city with the highest number of reported crimes per inhabitant – 217 per thousand in 2011.

Last year local crime rose 18 per cent in the canton to 72,821 violations of the Swiss Penal Code compared with 2010 – significantly higher than the six per cent national rise – driven largely by burglaries (between 25-50 a day) and street robberies.

Saudi Consul General Nabil Mohammed Al-Saleh, dean of Geneva’s consular group, comprising some 30 consulates like Britain, Belgium, Turkey, Algeria and South Africa, confirmed insecurity had become the “number one” concern of local diplomats.

“Crime has been increasing in Geneva over the past ten years,” he explained. “Everyone is upset. Everyone has been through something.”

In the past three months six Saudi consular staff have been robbed and similar problems have been reported with tourists arriving and staying in the centre.

“My colleague who covers the World Trade Organization (WTO) recently had his apartment broken into and our deputy consul too,” he added.

Easy victims

Japanese officials are also anxious.

“A twenty per cent increase is a lot,” said Japanese consul Tatsunori Ishida.

“The Japanese imagine Switzerland to be a calm and safe country with very beautiful countryside and a good tourist destination. But the reality here in Geneva is that on public transport, at the airport and at the station there are unfortunately lots of thefts.”

In 2011 there were 16 incidents involving Japanese diplomats – eight burglaries and eight pickpocketing cases. So far this year there has been one burglary and six diplomats have been robbed.

“Sixteen is a huge number for a diplomatic mission if you compare it to places like New York, London or Paris. In embassies there the figures involving diplomats are almost zero. In that sense Geneva is top,” a security officer at the Japanese mission told

He described Japanese visitors as “easy victims” in Geneva as they have the habit of using cash and generally don’t speak foreign languages so don’t know how to react when confronted and then hesitate to report incidents to the police.

Statistics involving Japanese tourists are still sketchy, but the consul said one person a week had their passport stolen.

Tourist office concerns

Geneva Tourism Director General Philippe Vignon, told the Tribune de Genève newspaper he was concerned by local insecurity and its impact on visitors, which could mean up to 15,000 fewer tourists in 2012.

On April 23 the Chinese embassy in Bern communicated to its network that Switzerland was not as safe as in the past, referring only to Geneva. A dozen Chinese tour operators have decided to no longer feature Geneva in their Swiss tours.

In a separate interview, Geneva’s police and security minister, Isabel Rochat, described Vignon's message as "distressing and contradictory to his mission".

"I'm very surprised that he puts forward a certain number of facts that have only been corroborated by his Asian contacts," she told the paper, but added there was no question of accepting the current security situation in Geneva.

“Most sensitive”

Among the 173 missions present in Geneva, the Japanese security officer described the US mission as one of the “most sensitive” to local insecurity questions. Last August it was dragged into a controversy over the assault of the son of an American UN diplomat in the centre of town.

But US Public Affairs Chief David Kennedy refused to comment on recent developments.

“It is our policy not to talk about security. It’s not a subject we want to get into. We have good relations with the Swiss authorities,” he said, adding that personally he had not experienced any problems over the past five years living there.

Diplomats from Germany and Belgium contacted by also downplayed the gravity of local insecurity.

Dante Martinelli, Swiss ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said he received complaints but felt the situation was improving slightly.

“From what we observe diplomatic missions are concerned about insecurity so we are working together with the canton to improve the situation. Since the beginning of this year things are a little better than last year when there was a big wave but we still get calls,” he noted.

Martinelli’s Geneva residence was one of 20 diplomatic buildings broken into last summer.

Rochat’s magic wand?

His office is often the first port of call for foreign diplomats, but the cantonal authorities and police have the chief responsibility for tackling the issue.

Al-Saleh said the consular group had invited Rochat for lunch about a month ago.

“We believe she’s doing what she can but she needs big support from the federal government, and the police and authorities here – it’s not her fault, she doesn’t have a magic wand,” he said. “We hope she succeeds as we think she’s doing a good job but the statistics remain the true barometer.”

After 20 years of stable police numbers, the Geneva authorities plan to add 250 officers to the 1,350-strong force between 2010 and 2013. There is currently one police officer per 400 inhabitants. This decision runs parallel to controversial proposals to reorganise the police department.

On the beat

In response to last year’s rise, the police created a special 18-officer unit in April to track a hardcore group of 400 repeat-offenders mainly from North Africa, many without papers, who are said to be responsible for 32 per cent of pickpocketing and 40 per cent of bag-snatching cases. 

Geneva police chief Monica Bonfanti told reporters that she was satisfied with the unit’s results so far - 109 arrests in one month and 12 people identified – but did not want to be judged by figures.

Alain Bittar, owner of the Arab bookshop L'Olivier in Geneva and a keen observer of the scene, felt the new unit had sent a clear signal and was having a “radical” impact.

“This unit proves that the problem is starting to be taken seriously…it seems that it’s destabilizing the networks which have had several years to establish themselves,” he told the Tribune de Genève newspaper.

But the Saudis and Japanese believe much more should be done to protect Geneva’s image.

“They need more cameras and police. And one of the major problems is that there are not enough prisons or agreements to send criminals home,” said the Saudi consul general.

“Geneva should be the safest place on earth with all these international organisations, important visitors, top VIPs, presidents, kings. It’s a small place. People come here to feel safe. The most important investment Geneva can make is to invest in its security.”


In canton Geneva local crime rose 18 per cent last year to 72,821 violations of the Swiss Penal Code compared with 2010. This compares with 43,798 in 2001, or a 66 per cent increase in 10 years.

Although violent and sexually related crimes were down nine and seven per cent respectively in the canton, cases of theft rose 29 per cent with burglaries up 17 per cent – up to 50 a day –  pickpocketing up 43 per cent, bag-snatching up 28 per cent and car theft up 45 per cent.

According to the police, the canton is currently facing three specific phenomena: gangs from the Balkans, in particular Romania, who were responsible for a wave of burglaries last autumn and young Roma from the Balkans based in Milan who carry out burglaries between Italy and Paris.

The third is citizens from North Africa who have settled illegally in Geneva and were initially very active in street crime and who continue to be active but have been strengthened with the arrival of people following the Arab Spring and have started to get involved in burglaries.  

Geneva police said they were responsible for 32 per cent of pickpocketing and 40 per cent of bag-snatching cases. 

In Mercer's quality of life ranking Geneva slipped from 2= in 2008 to 8th in 2011. In Mercer's "personal safety ranking" it fell from 2= in 2008 to 6th in 2011. According to Mercer the drop is due to rising crime in Geneva over this period.

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