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Rubrik: Campus Life

Conference on European asylum policy
Rejection here, generosity there

Published: 30.03.2006 06:00
Modified: 29.03.2006 20:51
Switzerland's asylum policy underwent a remarkable transformation during the course of the 20th century. At the annual conference of the Association for Exile Research light was shed not only on the period of the Second World War but also on the behaviour of the Swiss authorities in the post-war era.

Felix Würsten

Switzerland's asylum policy during the Second World War continues to be a source of controversy there. The latest example is the discussion surrounding new Canton Zurich school textbooks based on the investigations of the so-called "Bergier Commission". Specialists also continue to debate the issue. At the annual conference of the Association for Exile Research (Gesellschaft für Exilforschung), which, organised together with the ETH Archives of Contemporary History, took place at ETH Zurich on 18th-19th March and was devoted to the theme of "European Asylum Policies in the 20th century", it became clear that the treatment of refugees in the post-war years still furnishes interesting material.

Fear of too many foreigners

Switzerland's attitude to refugees underwent a remarkable metamorphosis in the course of the 20th century. While at the beginning of the First World War German pacifists were willingly taken in, the mood changed increasingly in the years following. Fears of being swamped by foreigners became the dominant factor driving asylum policy. This fear was simultaneously overlaid by a more or less pronounced anti-Semitism.

As the Zurich historian Stefan Mächler explained at the conference, this coincided with the currently so controversial, pervasive indifference of the Swiss authorities to those persecuted by the National Socialist dictatorship. In these crisis years Switzerland saw itself as a transit country and worked to ensure that arriving refugees left the country again as quickly as possible.

Great efforts by the Swiss Jews

Even though thousands were turned away at the Swiss border and thus often sent to certain death, many Jewish refugees also found shelter here. Switzerland's Jewish community played a decisive role in its engagement for the refugees, involving great personal sacrifice. Aid was not at first regarded as a state responsibility, but was left to charitable organisations.

This only changed when during the course of the war the number of asylum-seekers increased so massively that the aid organisations could no longer cope. The refugees were then put into military-run camps, where families were usually separated. It is remarkable, said Mächler, that the Jewish community held back from criticising the authorities, and it was not until 1942, for instance, that it put forward a request for a state subsidy. Pains were taken not to fuel the government’s latent anti-Semitism with loud criticism.

Burdensome inactivity

Anyone allowed to enter Switzerland usually received a short-term permit, and was strictly forbidden to pursue professional work. The imposed inactivity weighed very heavily on many emigrants. For this reason, in 1941 the Culture Association of Emigrants was founded in Zurich, and organised readings, plays and film performances. As Katharina Morawietz from the University of Basle said in her talk , each event had to be approved by the immigration authorities.

Although Switzerland's policy actually pointed in an entirely different direction – the aim was not to integrate refugees but get rid of them as soon as possible – the culture association was tolerated by the authorities. This was probably because the group kept quiet on political issues and took trouble not to attract attention.

Renewed reservations about Jews

By the war’s end at the latest it had become clear that Switzerland's asylum policy had not been honourable. Nevertheless, explained Daniel Gerson from the ETH Archives of Contemporary History, only a decade later the authorities again showed themselves unwilling to deal generously with Jewish refugees. At the end of 1956, during the Suez crisis, tens of thousands of Egyptian Jews had to leave their country due to Nasser's intensified Arab nationalism. Most emigrated to Israel and France, and a few came to Switzerland.

Although those who managed to reach Switzerland were hardly destitute refugees, the authorities put such pressure on them that they left the country again as soon as possible and did not establish themselves in the economy.

Fear of being swamped by foreigners is still an important element in Switzerland's asylum policy. The picture shows a poster used by aid organisations in 2002 to combat an SVP asylum initiative.

Foreign students at ETH were also dependent on the immigration police after 1945. The picture shows an extract from the Exceptional Permit of 17.11.1951 for Fabian Gerson, later lecturer at ETH Zurich and Professor at the University of Basle (Dossier Fabian Gerson, VSJF, in the ETH Archives of Contemporary History).

Using an illustrative example, Gerson showed how Switzerland’s Jewish community showed more resistance to the authorities and engaged itself for the emigrants, with some success. They were gradually able to soften the anti-Semitic- fear-of-foreigners attitude of the federal immigration police.

Sympathy for Hungary

In stark contrast was Switzerland's behaviour towards refugees from Hungary. After the Russian army violently crushed the popular uprising in October 1956 hundreds of thousands left this eastern European country. In an initial phase Switzerland spontaneously took in 4,000 of them; a contingent of 7,000 followed in a later phase. Compared to its then population Switzerland took in a remarkable number, said Brigitte Mihok from the Anti-Semitic Research Centre at the University of Berlin.

It is interesting how differently these two refugee acceptance phases proceeded. During the first, the provisioning and accommodation of the emigrants was co-ordinated by the Red Cross. The refugees were warmly welcomed by the population and subjected by the authorities to a minimum of red tape. The second wave of emigrants, on the other hand, was looked after by the military. Reception camps were set up in barracks and the Hungarians were only granted temporary permits. The acceptance of the refugees by the population gradually declined, together with the willingness to donate money.

Successful integration

The integration of the Hungarian refugees was accomplished relatively quickly, however. The economic climate was favourable, and targeted measures were taken to make their lives easier. After 1968 many of the former refugees applied for Swiss citizenship: the brutal end of the Prague Spring had put an end to their hopes of returning to their own country anytime in the near future. Generosity towards the Hungarian refugees did not, however, herald a change in Switzerland's policy towards foreigners. The relationship with emigrants from crisis regions remains difficult to the present day.

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