Notes From the Margins…

Achtung Switzerland!

  • August 11, 2013
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In Carol Reed’s The Third Man,  Harry Lime  sarcastically suggests that Switzerland’s only contribution to civilization is the cuckoo clock.   Lime was ignoring some innovations which would not have suited his modus operandi.

In terms of human rights and the laws of war, Switzerland is associated with some of the most significant developments of the modern era.  It was the birthplace of the  great eighteenth century philosopher and jurist Emerich de Vattel, whose ideas laid the basis for a body of law that that would later be realised in the Hague Conventions.

In 1863 the International Committee of the Red Cross was formed in Geneva by Henri Dunant and Gustave Moynier, in response to the carnage of the Franco-Austrian War.   It was in Geneva also that the United Nations adopted the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which remains the key treaty underpinning the international treatment of refugees.

As civilising instruments, these developments are considerably more important than clocks, watches or banking secrecy, even if an amoral black marketeer like Harry Lime was not likely to appreciate them.   It is therefore a sign of the times that local authorities in the town of Bremgarten, near Zurich should have introduced extraordinarily draconian restrictions on asylum seekers in a local reception centre that the Swiss Refugee Council describes as íntolerable and inhuman.’

According to the Independent,

‘ officials said refugees would not be allowed to “loiter” in school playgrounds and would be banned from visiting public swimming pools, playing fields and a church. A total of 32 “exclusion zones” have been drawn up.  Raymond Tellenbach, the town”s mayor, told the German broadcaster ARD: “We have decided on security grounds not to allow access to these areas, to prevent conflict and guard against possible drug use.”’

Local officials have rejected comparisons between these restrictions and apartheid, claiming that they are intended to avoid ‘conflict’ with the local population by preventing asylum seekers from visiting these prohibited places en masse, but these arguments don’t really hold up and the assumptions behind them are really quite shocking.

Since when have refugees seeking asylum chosen to ‘loiter’ outside school playgrounds, either in Switzerland or anywhere else? How could ‘conflict’ be avoided by banning refugees from going to church?  Shouldn’t churches be glad to welcome refugees fleeing war and persecution to their congregations?

More to the point, how can local officials enact such blatantly racist restrictions with the approval of the Swiss government?  The Independent suggests that the answer might be due to numbers:  Switzerland has a higher percentage of refugees compared with other European countries ( one refugee for every 332 inhabitants, compared to one per 625 inhabitants on the rest of the continent) and Swiss voters recently voted to tighten asylum restrictions to in an attempt to limit such entries.

But numbers do not account for these restrictions, any more than they do to the Swiss People’s Party’s virulent anti-immigrant campaigns.  In Switzerland, as in other European countries, it is not so much the numbers as the countries that migrants come from that is the real source of the country’s immigration ‘problem’.

The 1951 Refugee Convention was signed at a time when most of the world’s refugees were European, and where most refugee flows were expected to come from within the continent from the communist bloc to the ‘free world.’   The treaty was also a response to the disastrous interwar years, when numerous governments across the world had imposed limits and quotas on Jewish immigration – limits that were specifically intended to deny entry to Jews facing persecution in the Third Reich.

Ever since the 1980s, when refugees began arriving in Europe in significant numbers from the Third World,  these tentative steps towards the adoption of refugee protection as a universal principle have come under increasing pressure, as numerous governments have sought to narrow the filter through which refugees can obtain protection in response to xenophobic and racist political pressures that present the refugee system as a trojan horse for illegal immigration.

In Europe,  the establishment of human rights as a central component of the EU’s European governments has produced a situation in which numerous governments have tried to find ways of evading its responsibilities under the 1951 treaty in practice without rejecting it in principle.

One of the ways in which this has been done has been through a generally unacknowledged policy of ‘post-entry’ deterrence, which attempts to make life as harsh and as difficult for asylum seekers as possible, in the belief that such procedures will transmit a message to others seeking to follow their example.

Switzerland is not the first country to introduce restrictions on the movements of asylum seekers in an attempt to limit their contact with the surrounding population.  Numerous countries have done this in less obvious ways than those adopted by the Bremgarten authorities, for example by arbitrary detention or by confining asylum seekers to a particular geographical area.  In Italy, Northern League councils have enacted equally discriminatory legislation in some towns and cities – most of which have been blocked by Italian courts.

But the Swiss restrictions are an alarming and dangerous indicator of how far some countries have departed from the goal of a ‘Europe of asylum’ which is one of the EU’s declared objectives, and come to accept without question the denigration of asylum seekers that has become common currency amongst the far-right and in the mainstream media.

These restrictions assume or insinuate that asylum seekers are not men and women fleeing persecution, but a threat to public health, social stability and even the safety of children.

For a town in one of the richest countries in the world to do this – with support from the central government – is, or should be, a source of disgrace and shame, that deserves universal condemnation.

And if it doesn’t get it, then Switzerland may not be the last country to go down the same route.





















  1. Nik

    12th Aug 2013 - 8:58 am

    When I first read about this I couldn’t even believe it. Actually I still have difficulties wrapping my mind around this. It is simply shameful and considering the history of denying certain people access to certain areas of public life does not only resemble apartheid but even darker periods of human history.

    • Matt

      12th Aug 2013 - 9:37 am

      You said it Nik. Hope you were impressed by my command of German by the way….

      • Nik

        12th Aug 2013 - 2:50 pm

        Matt your “Achtung!!” came so naturally and read so convincingly it almost made me knock over my coffee and stand at attention. 😉

        But jokes aside, this stuff is almost unreal. I really like the Swiss, especially because their (german) dialect sounds to german speakers as hillarious as maybe english with french accent (à la ‘Allo ‘Allo!) to native english speakers. But if they can’t find a way to prevent such local legilative madness and more and more towns/regions in Switzerland choose to go down this rotten path then I’ll prolly have to reconsider.

        As much as I admire their tradition of local governing and plebiscites – if that’s what they want to use it for in future I don’t know what to say but “oh mein Gott” and shake my head in disbelief… and avoid buying swiss chocolate for my girlfriend.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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