A Swiss federal commission is warning of a dangerous rise in hate speech stemming from debate over the nation’s immigration and asylum policies as federal elections near in October.
The Federal Commission against Racism said on Monday it finds “a hardening tone” and risk of increasing “stigmatising speech and hate messages” related to immigration and asylum policies that will play an important role in the October 18 general elections.
In a statement, the commission expressed concern about the political climate ahead of the election and said that “degrading and hateful remarks have no place in a democracy”. Switzerland has long debated whether asylum seekers represent an economic drain and threat to social stability, or a responsibility to help in keeping with the country’s humanitarian tradition.
Such worries are justified, according to Fabrizio Gilardi, a political science professor at the University of Zurich.
“I am concerned about the way certain parties make use of the crisis going on in different countries and the influx of asylum seekers, and I think it’s disgraceful to make use of what is a tragedy and really a humanitarian crisis for electoral purposes,” he told swissinfo.ch.
With Europe facing its biggest migrant and refugee crisis in decades, much of it sparked by war and turmoil in the Middle East and Africa, debate has intensified within Switzerland over how much help it can and should lend others while maintaining its status as a safe, stable and prosperous democracy.
Over the weekend, news media reports carried the results of a survey showing that most Swiss feel it’s important to continue helping some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to reach Western Europe through Mediterranean routes – but almost half think the country should close its borders, at least temporarily.
Swiss border police reportedly apprehended some 13,000 illegal migrants in 2015, nearly as many as the 14,265 that they apprehended during all of last year. Many other European countries have also faced tensions from the influx of migrants and refugees mainly from Syria, Iraq and North Africa.
At the same time, the number of legal foreign residents in Switzerland has increased to almost one quarter of the population.
Created in 1995 to fight racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and right wing extremism, the commission has long attached particular importance to prevention, which is reflected in the commission's warning statement.
It reminded politicians and political parties that although no subject is taboo in a democracy, they have a “responsibility to fight against the words and acts that could incite intolerance against people and the most vulnerable groups”.
With asylum and immigration playing a big part of the electoral campaign this autumn, it is "perfectly legitimate" for politicians and political parties to express their opinions and reactions to various ideas, the commission said.
“Unfortunately”, it continued, “this theme is not only the object of democratic debate; it also serves as a pretext for the spread of stigmatising words and writings in respect of people who feel threatened in their existence and seek, in Switzerland or elsewhere, a place of refuge”.