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Charity tackles racial tensions in Emmen

Samir Kozarac was one of the 12 applicants from the Balkans who was rejected last December swissinfo.ch

Swiss and foreign residents in the town of Emmen are to be brought together under a new initiative aimed at reducing racial tensions.

This content was published on September 19, 2002 - 17:12

The integration project comes amid concerns that divisions between different nationalities are leading to violence.

In recent years, the town near Lucerne has gained international notoriety after refusing applications by foreigners for Swiss citizenship.

Last December voters turned down applications from 12 out of 13 candidates from the Balkans. The previous year, 48 candidates from the Balkans saw their applications rejected.

The one-year project - set up and run by the Swiss charity Caritas - is targeting the community of Meierhöfli, where more than 40 per cent of the 4,000 inhabitants are foreign.

Caritas received its mandate from the town's authorities. The charity says they are concerned about racial conflict in the area, including a rise in violent incidents.

"The goal is to get different groups to mix and get to know each other," Caritas spokesman Urs Odermatt told swissinfo.

The first phase of the project consists of setting up discussion groups for each separate language group, including Albanian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German.

Cultural differences

In the second phase, the groups will come together to discuss issues such as cultural differences and the problems faced by the community.

The aim is then for the groups to set up integration projects for the community.

"I think everything we do for the sake of integration is valuable," says Irene Gunz, a teacher at Meierhöfli's primary school.

"I know that the parents of my schoolchildren find it hard to get along, and we'll only start to break down those barriers once we get people to get to know one another and get over their fears."

Many foreigners in the town have also endorsed the programme, such as Sdravka Tsamboliga, a Yugoslav who has lived in Emmen for the last 27 years.

"I think I would go along [to the groups]. Most of my friends are from Yugoslavia and I also need to become more integrated," she says.

Local opposition

While the scheme has won the support of some members of the community, others are less optimistic or even hostile to it.

"I don't see what this will do to improve the situation," says Heidi Schmidt, a local resident. "At the end of the day, it's up to the foreigners to make more of an effort to integrate."

There are also fears that the scheme is too cursory to bring about fundamental changes in peoples' outlook.

"I have to say that I'm not optimistic that such a short-term project will make much of a difference," says Gunz, who also runs an integration project for women in the area. "These things have to run over several years in order to work."

Aside from these doubts, there's also the matter of motivating people to attend the discussion groups and to take part in the project for a whole year.

"I think it's worthwhile but, to be honest, I'm not sure that I'd go along," says a resident from Morocco.

Parliament tackles citizenship

The initiative comes as the Swiss parliament continues to examine ways of making it easier for foreign residents to gain citizenship.

The government is proposing to grant citizenship under certain conditions to foreigners born in Switzerland. Young foreigners who have been in a Swiss school for five years would also find themselves on a "fast-track" to naturalisation.

In addition, the government wants to streamline the complex procedure between federal, cantonal and local authorities.

swissinfo, Vanessa Mock

Key facts

Last year voters refused applications from 12 out of 13 candidates from the Balkans.
More than 40 per cent of the 4,000 inhabitants of Meierhöfli are foreign.
The Caritas integration project runs for one year.

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