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Vote rekindles debate on humanitarian policy

Refugees from Hungary reach eastern Switzerland in 1956. RDB

Ahead of Sunday's vote on tightening the asylum laws, both supporters and opponents claim that Switzerland's humanitarian tradition is at stake.

Those pushing for tougher rules say abuse needs to be curbed to safeguard the tradition; those against say the new rules undermine it. Experts say the reality is more complex.

The rightwing Swiss People’s Party, which has been pushing for tougher asylum and immigration regulations for decades, says the amended asylum legislation will allow the tackling of abuses.

“In return, Switzerland can maintain its humanitarian tradition to help those who are truly in need,” said the party in its campaign ahead of the nationwide vote on September 24.

The churches, which challenged the latest law, refer to the same tradition but have the opposite goal.

“Asylum rules have to be in line with Switzerland’s humanitarian tradition and Christian values,” argues Bishop Amédée Grab of the Catholic Church.

This different perception is reflected in many other political parties and organisations showing that society is generally split on the issue.

Political purpose

The reference to humanitarian values has always formed part of political debates, especially on Switzerland’s role during the Second World War.

The national exhibition in Zurich on the eve of the war in 1939 described Switzerland as a “safe haven for refugees” and evoked “our noble tradition” in a bid to unite the country in the face of the Nazi threat.

But the slogan is sharply contradicted by the actual Swiss policy: in 1938 the country had closed its borders to Jewish refugees from Austria, which had been annexed by Nazi Germany.

During the war Switzerland also applied an extremely restrictive policy towards Jews from neighbouring France trying to escape deportation to death camps.

Switzerland’s stance towards refugees during the Holocaust era was still causing heated debates in the middle of the 1990s when the government commissioned a wide-ranging study led by the eminent historian, Jean-François Bergier.

But despite the controversial reassessment of the refugee policy, Switzerland’s humanitarian image remained largely intact.

“Public opinion has not really taken in the facts of the Bergier report,” says Nelly Valsangiacomo, assistant professor at Lausanne University.



People’s initiative

This content was published on The people’s initiative allows every citizen to propose a modification of the constitution. To be valid it must be signed by at least 100,000 people within a period of 18 months. Parliament can directly accept the initiative. It can also refuse it or put forward a counter-proposal. In all cases a nationwide vote takes place.

Read more: People’s initiative

Huguenots and Liberals

Valsangiacomo says harking back to humanitarian traditions in the run up to the forthcoming vote on asylum and immigration shows how much the image persists.

The reasons are also to be found in history, notably the myths surrounding the establishment of modern-day Switzerland in the 19th century.

It is a fact though that over several centuries, due to its geographical position in the middle of Europe and its multicultural society, Switzerland was a safe haven for those persecuted in their countries for religious and political reasons.

These included the French Huguenots and members of the Waldensian denomination from northern Italy in the 16th century, as well as supporters of the 19th century Liberal Movement in Germany or the Republicans in Italy.

However, there was no coherent asylum policy based on universal humanitarian ideas, according to Professor Georg Kreis, a historian at Basel University.

“It was a series of individual decisions based on solidarity with certain political or cultural groups,” he told the SonntagsZeitung newspaper.

A point proven by the refugee policy during the second half of the 20th century. Citizens fleeing the Communist regimes of Hungary and Czechoslovakia were welcome but the Swiss authorities showed rather more restraint with representatives of persecuted labour movements or victims of dictatorships in Latin America.

National task

Despite this selectiveness, Switzerland used its asylum policy to declare it a national “historical mission” alongside the principle of neutrality, said the professor.

“This alleged asylum tradition made it possible to create an ideology which turned a humanitarian effort, amid a lack of political commitment, into an existential purpose for the nation,” Kreis said.

The current debate therefore illustrates the political fight over supremacy of a fundamental value. But experts warn that the frequent reference to the “humanitarian tradition” is of little political use. They say the term is ultimately void and could obstruct the view of reality.

“It would make more sense to refer to human rights. Why should Switzerland’s humanitarian tradition be any different from human rights?” asks Valsangiacomo.

swissinfo, Andrea Tognina

The founding fathers of modern Switzerland in 1848 used the right to grant asylum to show their independence from other countries.

At the time politicians and legal experts said individuals had no automatic right to asylum. Even today the Swiss constitution doesn’t mention the right of an individual to asylum but the state’s prerogative to grant refuge.

However, Switzerland has accepted the principle that people must not be expelled to countries where they face persecution.

Germany and Italy are among European countries which in principle acknowledge the right of the individual to demand asylum.

The Swiss electorate is to decide on a further tightening of asylum rules in a nationwide vote on September 24.
It is the ninth time since 1984 that asylum law is amended, five of the proposals to tighten the rules were approved in nationwide votes.
However four people’s initiatives to limit the number of asylum seekers were rejected in nationwide ballots over the past 20 years.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR