Switzerland split on the refugee issue

Switzerland split on the refugee issue

While some groups are advocating for stronger commitments to asylum seekers, others, such as the Swiss People’s Party, call for stronger borders. Humanitarian concerns, worries about the economy, and tinges of xenophobia have combined to create a divided situation in Switzerland.

The refugee crisis has become a top issue in Switzerland, as parliamentary elections coincide with the influx of refugees in Europe. Indeed, List 20 in the parliamentary elections is entitled “Greens, Migrants and Seconds,” with candidates from diverse migrant backgrounds. This group is running on a platform that offers voters a chance to rectify the under-representation of migrants and second-generation permanent residents in parliament.

The broad consensus among Swiss parties is to help refugees, but the main parties are touting different ways of doing so. The Social Democratic Party (SP) has called for a welcoming culture to treat asylum claims quickly and fairly, with integration aids for those who stay longer.

Meanwhile, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP) favours Swiss cooperation with EU population-based refugee distribution quotas, but argues that the Swiss should be focused on local efforts in the Middle East. Lastly, the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP) has called for clearer legislation on actual asylum seekers and displaced persons / economic migrants, as current definitions are complicating relief efforts.

The only outlier among the major Swiss parties is Toni Brunner’s Swiss People’s Party (SVP), currently the largest party in parliament. Brunner has called for a clamp down on illegal immigrants, a thickening of borders, and a moratorium on asylum applications. The SVP under Brunner has threatened an injunction against Swiss participation in the EU refugee quota system, going so far as to suggest a motion to withdraw from Schengen/Dublin.

Furthermore, in March 2015, the Federal Council agreed to accept 3000 refugees over three years, with the only opponent being Ueli Maurer (SVP), the defence and justice minister. The SVP position appears to resonate with large sections of the Swiss populace, as a September 2nd survey found 44.6% of respondents in favour of closing the borders to refugees, with 83% either strongly or somewhat agreeing with the statement that Swiss aid should be primarily on-the-ground assistance overseas.

Calls to do more

At the same time, Federal Council President Simonetta Sommaruga (SP) has been pushing for more robust commitments. In September, she decided to accept 3000 Syrian refugees in 18 months rather than over three years, announced that Switzerland will be taking an additional 1500 refugees already registered in Italy and Greece, and has sought to counter SVP opposition by categorically refusing to implement systematic border controls.

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Parties on the left have also criticized Switzerland’s response to the crisis, with the Green Party arguing
for the acceptance of more than 20,000 refugees. Similarly, Peter Maurer, the president of the International Red Cross, has criticized his home country’s lack of help as “not acceptable.”

Currently, Switzerland has the option of joining in EU efforts at refugee settlement. This would see Switzerland absorb 4% (4000-5000) additional refugees of the 120,000 under EU distribution.

While the numbers of refugees are manageable, housing has become a problem, with hundreds of refugees being housed in underground military bunkers. Moreover, Beat Meiner, former president of Swiss Refugee Aid, protested the situation stating, “we humans are not moles.”

Demographics worry Swiss voters

Concerns about foreigners taking Swiss jobs is a perennial topic, as many seasonal and cross-border workers are employed in the country. This, coupled with the fact that Switzerland has the third highest foreign-born population (26%) in the OECD, leads to distinct anti-foreigner sentiments.

Moreover, due to the Euro crisis, the Swiss franc is at record highs, hampering exports and tourism and dragging the country into recession. Switzerland also has very low naturalization rates, with accepted asylum seekers having to wait, on average, more than 10 years before a C-permit (settlement permit) is issued.

Currently there are some 38,000 refugees in Switzerland, many of which are from Eritrea, Sri Lanka, and the Balkans. These numbers in tandem with new arrivals have caused the cantons, (who despite being largely in favour of the EU quota system) to complain that the federal government is delegating the issue to them.

In 2014, the federal government transferred CHF 767 million ($791 million) to the cantons for refugee support. This outlay, coupled with the fact that 84% of refugees are on social assistance, leads many to view refugees as a drain: the aforementioned poll also saw 63% of respondents claim that too many refugees will lower national prosperity.

An unlikely partnership

Individuals who have recently entered the country are issued an F-permit, which entitles them to a job provided by the government irrespective of the national economic and job market condition. Yet these “temporarily accepted” individuals are reliant on the government, constitute the largest refugee group, and cannot enter the formal job market. For many individuals, their asylum applications have been denied, but they cannot be sent back due to practical or ethical reasons.

Moreover, once they acquire a job, they lose access to any social assistance and must pay 10% of their paycheck to the government. Conservative circles in Switzerland have argued that social assistance of $2,065 per month is too much for people from low-medium income countries. Consequently, under the SVP’s mass immigration initiative, refugees have ironically gained greater access to Swiss jobs as the SVP touts a “work not handouts” line.

The irony continues as the SVP benefits from xenophobia, and draws support largely from conservative rural voters. Interestingly, the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) has launched a pilot project with the Swiss Farmers Association to employ F and B-permit migrants in the agriculture sector.

There are already 25-35,000 seasonal workers in the Swiss agricultural sector, so farmers are seeking to cover their labour shortage by giving refugees jobs. Once a refugee accepts a job, all state aid falls away, with workers receiving the normal minimum wage of $3300 per month, and having to pay for their own food and housing.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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Jeremy Luedi

Jeremy is a widely referenced political risk expert and weekly columnist for Global Risk Insights (GRI). Jeremy's writing has been featured in Business Insider, Huffington Post, Nasdaq.com, The Japan Times, MSN Money, and Yahoo Finance. His work also has been quoted and recommended by Time Magazine, Politico, Transparency International, and Greenpeace, among others.