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Blacks bear the brunt of racism in Switzerland

Blacks say they are encountering more racism in Switzerland

(Keystone)

A sharp rise in Switzerland's black population over recent months appears to have hardened attitudes towards Africans, and asylum seekers in particular.

More and more blacks say they are suffering from racism on the streets, in the workplace or in the housing market.

In the run-up to this month's national vote on restricting the rights of asylum seekers, anti-racism groups are warning that blacks in particular are being depicted en masse as drug dealers or trouble-makers without any evidence on the part of those making the claims.

"The federal commission against racism has observed an increase in clearly racist articles in Switzerland's smaller regional newspapers," commission spokeswoman Doris Angst Yilmaz told swissinfo.

"In these articles they frequently use anti-black stereotypes and blatantly incite their readership to act against African asylum seekers who are all classified as drug dealers."

Misconceptions

No one is denying that the number of black African asylum seekers is on the increase in Switzerland. In 1992, the federal refugee office registered some 7,000 black Africans requesting asylum. In the first three-quarters of 2002 the number was 17,000.

Despite frequent reports of black crime in the media, though, officials insist that the statistics don't match popular misconceptions.

"I was given some figures by the police recently which showed hardly any increase in crime among blacks in Switzerland," Zurich asylum organisation spokesman Thomas Schmutz told swissinfo.

"Admittedly there has been a rise in the number of young black Africans involved in Zurich drug deals, but even then blacks account for just 12 per cent of arrests made - why is no one asking about the other 88 per cent?"

Increase

While Switzerland as a whole is having to deal with increasing numbers of black asylum seekers, the German-speaking part of the country has recently faced a particularly sharp increase, thanks to a change in national policy.

"There used to be an unwritten policy that most African asylum seekers would be sent to the French-speaking cantons, because so many of them were coming from French-speaking west Africa," explains federal refugee office spokesman Dominique Boillat.

"But the French-speaking cantons complained about this and we agreed that we would try to spread different racial groups more evenly across the country."

German crash course

For many of the Africans arriving in Zurich's asylum centres this necessitates crash courses in German, even if they are already fluent in French.

"That can certainly be frustrating for some of our asylum seekers but we accept the argument that sometimes Switzerland's needs must come before those of the asylum seekers," concedes Schmutz.

"If you look at the recent problems in the Balkans, for example, we had many Italian-speaking asylum seakers coming from Kosovo but clearly they couldn't all be housed in the [Italian-speaking] canton of Ticino."

A meeting with some of the young students at a German language course organised by the Zurich asylum organisation serves as a quick reminder, however, that language is only one obstacle faced by those trying to assimilate in Switzerland.

Daily racism

"They look at you like you're a devil," complains one 17-year-old. "If you're on a tram and any white person sits near you, you know that they're a foreigner, too," says a fellow student.

And if the youngsters think official refugee status or even a Swiss passport will help to change such perceptions, they are likely to be disappointed, according to asylum centre social worker, Ezzeldin Abdalrahman.

"I came to Switzerland from Sudan ten years ago and was fortunate to be recognised as a legitimate refugee within three months," Abdalrahman recalls. "I later married a Swiss woman and was able to take up Swiss citizenship.

"I think there is varying degrees of racism all over the world, but it does still sadden me that I am still made to feel like a foreigner in Switzerland just because of the colour of my skin."

More political support

Many of the teenagers in the asylum centre classroom feel Switzerland's politicians should be doing more to tackle discrimination, a sentiment that Zurich government member Monika Stocker says she shares.

The Green party politician, who has asked the federal government to provide more funds for the education of asylum seekers, worries though that anti-foreigner rhetoric is going down well with many Swiss citizens.

"Perhaps once the national vote on restricting asylum seekers' rights has taken place, things might calm down - so long as the voters say no, of course," Stocker told swissinfo.

"But it's very hard to say right now how the Swiss will vote, and it's even harder to make a clear and correct argument in the current climate. It's all the emotion attached to this debate that worries me the most."

Change in attitudes

Back at the Zurich asylum organisation, Thomas Schmutz makes the point that attitudes towards black people in Switzerland could yet improve without the need for a major change in Swiss attitudes. The theory is a cynical one, however.

"It seems to me that the Swiss public always need to have a scapegoat for society's problems," argues Schmutz.

"Right now it's the west Africans whereas it used to be the Tamils. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Tamils had a really bad time but now many people see them as the darlings of Swiss society because they're seen to be working so hard in the country's restaurants."

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich

In brief

A sharp rise in Switzerland's black population over recent months appears to have hardened attitudes towards Africans, and asylum seekers in particular.

Ahead of this month's national vote on restricting the rights of asylum seekers, anti-racism groups are warning that blacks are being depicted as drug dealers or trouble-makers without any evidence.

In 1992, the federal refugee office registered some 7,000 black Africans requesting asylum. In the first three-quarters of 2002 the number was 17,000.

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