The Swiss Refugee Council (SRC) has played an important role in the past and its work is much in demand now, spokesman Jürg Schertenleib tells swissinfo.This content was published on June 18, 2006 - 10:04
The SRC, which is a non-governmental organisation, is currently involved in the fight against the latest revision of Swiss asylum legislation.
Founded on June 17, 1936, the SRC led and coordinated the activities of almost 20 aid organisations that helped refugees who fled Nazi Germany.
Schertenleib, who is SRC spokesman and head of its legal department, looks back at the darker side of official Swiss refugee policy during the Second World War.
swissinfo: Following Hitler's rise to power in Germany, Jews were persecuted and many fled to Switzerland, along with other political refugees. What was the SRC's role at the time?
Jürg Schertenleib: Swiss officials argued that looking after refugees was a private matter. The state did not provide them with any support.
Aid organisations had to accommodate and care for thousands of refugees. The SRC carried out fundraising and helped to coordinate activities between aid organisations and communal, cantonal and federal authorities.
swissinfo: What was the situation like during the Second World War?
J.S.: They were dramatic times for Switzerland and for refugees. Jewish people from Germany and Austria had their passports stamped with the letter "J". At the same time the Swiss authorities wanted to prevent refugees from crossing into Switzerland, which the SRC fiercely resisted. The closing of the border was eventually dropped on condition that aid agencies took care of all refugees without federal support.
But Jewish refugees were denied entry into Switzerland by legal means. Swiss authorities deported many Jewish people who had already been living in Switzerland to Germany or France, where they ended up in Nazi concentration and extermination camps.
Between 1942 and 1944 the Swiss borders were closed to all refugees, despite protests from aid agencies, churches and social welfare groups. Switzerland turned away tens of thousands of people, condemning many to their deaths, but it also saved and looked after others. When we look back today, certainly much more should have been done.
swissinfo: What happened in the post-war period?
J.S.: After the Second World War, Switzerland provided a home for concentration camp survivors. Refugees then started arriving from eastern European communist countries. In 1979 the first relatively liberal asylum law came into force in Switzerland, based on the United Nations Refugee Convention.
Numerous revisions were then made to the law, making it more repressive. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the whole refugee picture changed. States collapsed, ethnic conflicts broke out and growing numbers of refugees arrived in Switzerland, leading to tougher asylum laws.
swissinfo: The SRC has joined forces to form a coalition for a humanitarian Switzerland to challenge new changes to the asylum law. What is it all about?
J.S.: Our mission, which involves protecting refugees in Switzerland, is currently under threat from tougher asylum legislation. The initial revision was acceptable – a ruling to give civil war refugees an improved legal status; the SRC actually supported the revision in parliament.
But following the debate, Justice Minister Christoph Blocher introduced 12 new much tougher proposals that persecute refugees, violate human and children's rights and treat rejected asylum seekers inhumanely. We can't put up with this any longer.
swissinfo: You face strong opposition, in the form of the three government parties - the Swiss People's Party, the Radical Party and the Christian Democrat Party - what chances do you think you have?
J.S.: It's disappointing to see that there are similarities between this revision and the People's Party's asylum initiative that we successfully fought in the 2002 referendum, and which the Radicals, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats opposed.
Today we have a revision of a law that threatens Swiss humanitarian tradition, refugees and victims of persecution. Our opponents are powerful, but we are also trying to build a strong base – we have growing support.
swissinfo: Switzerland has also been criticised abroad for its restrictive asylum policy. Shouldn't Switzerland bring its asylum policy into line with that of the European Union as it is supposed to do according to the Schengen Agreement?
J.S.: European states, including Switzerland, are currently in a kind of "negative competition" over matters of asylum. It's a terrible vicious downward spiral, where refugees have to accept unpleasant conditions to gain residency.
In this respect harmonisation can only help; we need agreement on minimum standards. Switzerland is still undercutting these well-recognised standards - at least in a number of specific areas.
If Switzerland takes part in the Schengen asylum system, then politically it has to provide these minimum standards and not fall short of them. But then again the Schengen system should also be overhauled.
swissinfo-interview: Jean-Michel Berthoud
Founded on June 17, 1936, the Swiss Refugee Council (SRC) is the umbrella organisation representing refugee aid agencies.
The SRC is an independent organisation with no political or religious affiliations.
In association with refugee organisations, it coordinates their representation at the hearings of asylum seekers.
It analyses the situations in refugees' countries of origin and shares legal advice with asylum seekers and refugees' lawyers.
In association with refugee organisations, it manages Swiss funds for integration projects for recognised refugees.
The Swiss Refugee Council includes:
Protestant charity Swiss Interchurch Aid
Swiss Red Cross
Swiss Workers' Aid
Swiss Jewish Welfare Association
Swiss Refugee Day takes place on June 17 and World Refugee Day takes place on June 20.
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