Atlantic Cities

One Swiss Town's Disturbing Apartheid Policy for Asylum Seekers

One Swiss Town's Disturbing Apartheid Policy for Asylum Seekers
Mark Byrnes

Stay away from our high school grounds. Don’t come near our church. Above all, don’t even think about jumping into our swimming pool. These are just some of the apartheid-style restrictions the Swiss town of Bremgarten has tried to introduce this summer to keep asylum seekers out of its public spaces. The measures were agreed to after an old military complex in this town of 6,500 was earmarked as a reception center for up to 150 asylum seekers, due to remain open for three years. Together with the town’s authorities, Switzerland’s Federal Office for Migration drew up a list of 32 "sensitive zones" from which inmates of the complex would be excluded, including a church, sports facilities and a swimming pool. 

Bremgarten’s suggested restrictions are the toughest anywhere in Switzerland, but they’re not the only ones around. The center is part of a wider plan to house Switzerland’s asylum seekers in military installations, among which Bremgarten is considered especially suitable because, unlike much of the country’s secretive defensive network, it’s actually above ground. Elsewhere in this network, asylum seekers at a shelter in Lucerne’s suburbs have been barred from approaching nearby school grounds, while in another commuter town nearby they’ve been banned from sports facilities and an area of woodland. So is Switzerland sliding slowly into a form of racial segregation?

Probably not. While it’s not clear how such restrictions would be enforced, they were not intended to be backed up by criminal sanctions. Other Swiss areas also opening new centers have rejected the idea of creating sensitive zones out of hand, while international outrage around the Bremgarten plans forced justice minister Simonetta Sommaruga to deny that such plans ever had any jurisdiction. It’s not the case that all of Switzerland’s 48,000 asylum seekers are ostracized either – this German language piece from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung found some expressing gratitude for locals’ respectful, sympathetic treatment.

What is worrying, nonetheless, is the degree of racism the case has exposed, especially damaging to a country also under international scrutiny thanks to Oprah Winfrey’s experiences of racial profiling in a Zurich handbag shop.

One of the milder concerns came from a cantonal government head who observed that "even though the occupants will be women and children, there will be criminals among them," a speculative comment which could be made about pretty much any group of people. The leader of another community expressed concern that "asylum-seekers could meet our schoolchildren - young girls or young boys," as if to suggest that there was something in the experience of fleeing persecution that turned people into pedophiles. It's worth remembering that these prejudices are not just ugly chatter. They’re being used to try to restrict innocent people’s freedom of movement, and to ostracize them from the only sort of contact that could prove such prejudices false.

More insidiously, defenders of the measures have repeatedly presented them as common sense moves to maintain social harmony. A Lucerne official who will never live under such restrictions himself said that "the creation of sensitive areas has proven valid and never caused any problems," assuming that because the zones have not been actively contested by powerless asylum seekers, they must be entirely unproblematic.

In fact, Switzerland has bad historical form in letting the desire for tidy public spaces step over into authoritarianism. From 1928 to 1972, Switzerland ran a program to remove gypsy children from their families – their removal based on ethnicity rather than proven criminality – placing them in institutions where they often faced abuse. Neutral, prosperous and peacefully polyglot, Switzerland wouldn’t attempt such a plan now, of course, but when authorities are considering segregating public spaces to shut out outsiders, the bad old days don’t seem so very far away.

Feargus O'Sullivan covers Europe for The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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