Swiss asylum policy faces tough times

Asylum seekers may face more barriers if they wish to enter Switzerland Keystone Archive

Supporters and opponents of Switzerland's asylum policy are facing off as citizens prepare to vote on the issue in November.

This content was published on October 27, 2002 - 11:59

Parts of the population are concerned Switzerland is being flooded by asylum seekers, while academics fear xenophobia is rearing its ugly head.

According to a recent poll by the GfS institute, 57 per cent of the electorate said they would vote in favour of a people's initiative launched by the Swiss People's Party against abuses in the asylum sector.

Questions have been raised about what this result exactly means, in particular if the Swiss are becoming xenophobic.

"We need to understand why the population is prepared to support this initiative, rather than reject it," said Uli Windisch, a sociology professor at Geneva University.

"The discussion surrounding asylum tends be ideological. On one side, people minimise the abuses, and one the other, the slightest mistake is blown out of proportion."

Yves Brutsch, a spokesman for the Protestant Social Centre in Geneva, says the debate is skewed.

"For the last 15 years, the whole debate has centred on the abuses by a minority of asylum seekers and the cost of our refugee policy," he told swissinfo.

Brutsch puts part of the blame on those in charge. "Politicians, and the federal authorities as well, have never taken the time to talk about the reality of asylum and the need to help persecuted populations."

Recession fears

Observers say this lack of communication gives the populist right an open playing field, allowing it to build on past electoral successes.

Pandering to fears of an influx of asylum seekers or foreigners is not unusual in an insecure economic environment.

Nationalist or xenophobic movements are usually reinforced by recession according to Marie-Claire Caloz-Tschopp, a professor of philosophy at Geneva University.

"When a person feels insecure, he'll often go looking for a scapegoat, someone on whom he can project his fears," she told swissinfo. "And usually the first to suffer from this are those who are lowest in the social order, in particular foreigners."

She adds that the current economic situation can be a catalyst for these fears.

"The People's Party initiative exploits the fears of a population facing globalisation, increasing unemployment and a neo-liberal economy that pays lip-service to individual rights."

Caloz-Tschopp says the populist right isn't solely responsible for building on popular anxieties. "Most of the country's political parties and the government are afraid of confronting people's fears."

Xenophobic feelings

Part of the problem, according to asylum activists, has been that the government has failed to clearly state its asylum policy - or what it should be. In fact, things have progressively worsened over the last 10 years, as the authorities have slowly integrated populist right wing policies.

"The government has admitted as much," said Brutch. "Most of the People's Party's proposals have been included in the revised asylum law."

"The problem is that by integrating those proposals, the government has given the populist right a legitimacy it didn't have before."

Few European countries have resisted this temptation.

According to Boël Sambuc, vice-president of the Federal Commission Against Racism, only Norway and Sweden - countries that have a strong stance on human rights - have managed so far to keep right-wing rhetoric out of asylum laws.

"It's the only way to give the population a true choice," she said.

Asylum activists say the Swiss government has taken up populist right-wing ideas to take the wind out of the People's Party's sails, but at the risk of stirring up xenophobic feelings in the population.

Promoters of more restrictive asylum laws point to delinquency and abuses as factors that must be considered when dealing with asylum seekers.

Uli Windisch warns that minimising these issues could just make things worse. "It would increase tension among the population and push some citizens into the ranks of more extremist movements."

swissinfo, Vanda Janka

Key facts

40,829 asylum seekers in Switzerland at the end of September.
6,185 refugees.
27,268 temporary admissions.
1,486 people have been expulsed or have left.

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