October 26, 2009

"Muslims Targeted in the Name of Minarets"

Switzerland's Muslim community is witnessing a xenophobic campaign by the political right-wing ahead of a vote next month on the banning of Islamic minarets.

The initiative 'Against the construction of minarets' was submitted last year by a committee of politicians from the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) and the conservative Federal Democratic Union (EDU). While the SVP holds 58 seats in Switzerland's National Council, the EDU only holds one of the the council's 200 seats. The committee says minarets are a "symbol for religious- political claims to power" and an instance of a creeping "Islamisation of Switzerland".

Aware of the unrest the initiative could provoke among Muslims around the world, the Swiss Federal Council, Switzerland's government, has asked voters to reject the amendment. Its call was followed by majorities against the initiative in the Council of States and the National Council, both chambers of the Swiss parliament.

Switzerland is home to about 350,000 Muslims, accounting for less than five percent of the population. Over the past 50 years, Muslim communities have built more than 150 mosques, mostly in homes, garages or in industrial areas. Only four minarets can be seen in the country, while construction of a fifth is legally disputed in Langenthal town.

Tensions are rising ahead of the Nov. 27 vote. Propaganda placards have led to lengthy debates in the media. One poster shows a veiled woman before a Swiss flag penetrated by several black minarets. The picture is accompanied by the words: "Stop. Yes to a ban on minarets."

Hisham Maizar heads the Federation of Islamic Umbrella Organisations, representing almost half the Islamic centres in Switzerland. "They claim that minarets will spread like mushrooms," he says. "It's unacceptable that minarets are presented like rockets and that the pictured woman symbolises an attitude which female Muslims can't identify with."

The initiative demands the addition of a single sentence to the Swiss constitution: "The construction of minarets is forbidden." For its critics, the story doesn't end here. "The initiative's real goal is not to avoid the construction of a few minarets in Switzerland," says Balthasar Glättli, secretary-general of Solidarité sans Frontières, an organisation promoting migrants' rights. "It's obvious that this campaign is about spreading fears of Islam and prejudices against people originating from Islamic countries."

Hisham Maizar, a Swiss doctor of Palestinian origin, is said to be Switzerland's most influential Muslim. He is also a founding member of the multi-faith Swiss Council of Religions. The national body made up of Jews, Christians and Muslims firmly rejects the initiative.

Maizar accuses the initiators of leading a proxy debate on Islam instead of minarets: "Their lack of arguments is indicated by their stereotyping: they claim that minarets stand for sharia, Islamisation and burqas. However, this isn't reflected in Switzerland's Islamic community at all. I can't remember when I last saw a woman wearing a burqa in this country."

Switzerland has experienced similar right-wing campaigns in recent years. In 2002 Swiss citizens voted on an initiative against 'asylum abuse'. A propaganda banner then showed a dark-skinned, black-haired man in black clothes, wearing black sunglasses and gloves, emerging from the middle of the Swiss flag and tearing it up. In 2007 and 2008, the SVP collected signatures for an initiative demanding the deportation of criminal foreigners, using the image of white sheep kicking a black sheep out of the Swiss flag.

"The initiative and the campaign have continuity as regards content and stand in a tradition of right-wing populist campaigning in Switzerland," says Damir Skenderovic, professor of contemporary history at the University of Fribourg near capital Bern. "However, the current focusing on a specific group is noticeable. The various migration-related votes and campaigns during the nineties were kept much more general. It was about 'the stranger' or 'the other', mainly in the form of asylum-seekers. Nowadays the focus is on one specific group, namely Muslim immigrants."

Skenderovic, who has published several studies on racism, right-wing extremism and migration politics in Switzerland, traces the origins of the right-wing discourse to the late eighties. "At that time splinter parties like Vigilance, National Action, and the Federal Democratic Union operated with the threat of an assumed Islamisation, the flooding of the Christian West by Islam. Nine-eleven definitely reinforced the discourse, but the phenomena itself has a much longer tradition."

As in many European countries, Muslims have often been depicted as being unable to integrate. The fiercest debates have erupted around veiled women, the refusal of some Muslim parents to let their daughters join swimming classes at school, and the conception of women in Islam in general. Maizar strongly disagrees with the widespread stereotype that all Muslims are the same: "The Muslim communities are very diverse. It's absurd to lump all Muslims together, as the populists are doing."

Balthasar Glättli points out that the hostile conception of Islam in Switzerland "is being nurtured totally independent of the number of Muslims in the country. It's an attempt to create a cultural unity among Swiss people. Such efforts usually serve less to define the enemy in detail, but more to create one's group identity vis-à-vis something external."

Valentina Smajli is originally from Kosovo - and Muslim. Living in Switzerland's Catholic heartland, she's active in the Social-Democratic Party and in various political projects on migrants' issues. She says that like herself, "many migrants from countries with a Muslim population treat their religion indifferently and don't define themselves through Islam. However, also these people sometimes are victims of hidden or frank anti-Muslim prejudices."

"Muslims in Switzerland are suffering from negative generalisations and headlines," agrees Andi Geu, co-director of the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI), a Swiss institute devoted to fighting prejudice, racial discrimination and violence. "When looking for apprenticeship, work or housing, Muslims are often discriminated against."

Geu considers the SVP's anti-Muslim campaign a xenophobic effort "to keep its constituency mobilised and attached to the party. It's not about the minarets, it's about permanent election campaigning." NCBI is now running an information campaign on Islam to confront the new initiative.

Shahab, a young Kurdish refugee from Iraq living in Bern considers the anti- minaret initiative "a point of departure for right-wing attacks against all migrants in Switzerland. The initiative basically targets foreigners, not minarets," he says. "In the end two winners emerge: right-wing extremists and radical Islamists. For the latter it's becoming easier to present Muslims as an oppressed minority whose religious activities are being limited."

The current discourse on the 'Islamisation of Switzerland' can be seen in the tradition of what Skenderovic calls the 'discourse of overforeignisation'. The professor traces its origins back to the early 20th century. In Switzerland, the discourse's impact drastically increased before the Second World War: "Eventually, the discourse entered state policies and legislation. It continued in refugee policy and was strongly connected to anti-semitism in the thirties and the way the authorities dealt with Jewish refugees during the thirties and throughout the Second World War."

The discourse of 'overforeignisation' was revitalised in the sixties by state authorities, trade unions and right-wing populist parties, and became a keystone of splinter parties' agendas. Its continuity was largely connected to the radicalisation of the conservative Swiss People's Party.

"In the beginning of the nineties, specifically in 1991 and 1992, the SVP was organisationally and structurally more or less overtaken by Zurich's cantonal branch and the latter's agenda transferred to the federal SVP," says Skenderovic. "At that time, the SVP took over the discourse of 'overforeignisation' from the splinter parties, especially regarding asylum and integration policy."

Taking over radical right-wing parties' xenophobic agenda strengthened the SVP and was a key to its rise in the past two decades. On the national level, the SVP managed to swallow all parties on the right side of the political spectrum. In the 2007 federal elections, the last seat in the National Council held by the far-right party Swiss Democrats fell to the SVP, who won 29 percent of the vote.

In response to the anti-minaret placards, the local governments of Basel and Lausanne towns recently decided to prohibit their display. Various other cantons and cities have asked the Federal Commission against Racism for advice. The commission regards the images as reinforcing prejudices against Islam, presenting it as negative and potentially threatening.

But Hisham Maizar is against banning the posters. "I'm fundamentally against bans, and advocate freedom of speech. However, I'm clearly against the fact that the red lines of our democracy are crossed like this and that a specific group like the Muslims are attacked in such an impious way."

Balthasar Glättli says he too opposes restricting freedom of speech, but has some sympathy for those advocating the ban, because the campaign is really going way too far.

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.

October 13, 2009

"Undocumented Migrants Run Their Own School"

Switzerland is a tough place for asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants. In Zurich, they have been running a remarkable campaign for the past year, challenging the canton's asylum policy. Now, they have opened their own school.

"Please show me your homework!" Bah Saidou tells his students. Some hand in their papers, others haven't done anything, and a few are new in the class. The classroom is packed full. The lesson of the day focuses on grammar. This isn't a regular school though, Saidou isn't a usual teacher, and the students aren't quite common either. The class takes place in a squatted, autonomous school, and Saidou is a so-called "sans-papiers" - an undocumented migrant. The more than 60 students in the class are asylum-seekers, immigrants with temporary admission, and people whose stay is illegal under Swiss law.

It is estimated that Switzerland is home to 100,000 to 200,000 sans-papiers. Among them, three main groups can be distinguished: the first group consists of those who entered the country on work permits, didn't get them renewed but decided to stay. Those who came to Switzerland looking for clandestine employment make up the second category. As a consequence of Switzerland's harsh asylum policy, a third group is steadily growing. It contains migrants whose asylum request was rejected or not even looked into, and refugees who've lost their temporary admission when they were asked to leave because their countries of origin where considered "safe to return".

Saidou, one of the teachers at the school, is from Guinea. He came to Switzerland in September 2002. A few months later, he received a so-called NEE, a "non-admissibility-decision" on his asylum claim. Despite being obliged to leave the country, he stayed, and has been living in Switzerland illegally for the past six years. When in January 2008 the new asylum law came into effect, Saidou's living conditions drastically worsened. No longer receiving social aid, he was placed in an emergency centre and has been surviving on minimal assistance provided by Zurich's Department of Social Affairs.

The new Swiss asylum law left a tiny door open for illegalised migrants: The "provision for cases of hardship" allows sans-papiers, who have lived in Switzerland for at least five years and have "integrated very well", to file a request for a residency permit. The cantonal authorities of Zurich, however, put extremely difficult conditions for applicants, such as comparatively high skills in German language. At the same time, undocumented migrants have neither opportunity nor the means to visit language classes.

In December 2008, a group of sans-papiers squatted at a church in Zurich for more than two weeks, demanding their right to stay in Switzerland, and better living conditions. "Shortly after the occupation of the church and the talks with the canton's council, we and our supporters decided to establish language classes on our own," says Saidou. The project started with about 30 people. Today it serves more than 150 students. Classes for three different language levels - A1, A2 and B1 - are held.

Berhanu Tesfaye is one of the students at the school. Born in Ethiopia, he fled to Switzerland in 2000 and was issued a NEE twice. Then he filed a request under the hardship provision, but failed: "My application was rejected because my German language skills weren't good enough", Tesfaye explains. "Then I came to the school. Three months later I successfully passed an exam in A2, and four months later in B1. The certificate allows me to hand in an application again."

Waiting for the class to begin, Joao Antonio from Angola says he's happy with the course. He's been living in Switzerland for the past 15 years, most of the time illegally. His situation worsened when the new asylum law came into effect: "I lost my job and my home. Now I live in an emergency centre. I want to apply for a residency permit under the hardship provision and improve my language skills, that's why I've come to the school."

For undocumented migrants, the school is the only way to learn German. A woman from Nigeria who prefers to remain anonymous explains: "I came here in 2002. In 2003 I was allowed to attend classes, but this was stopped in 2004. I received a NEE and was no longer permitted to attend language classes. This school is my only way to learn the language properly."

Another student, Sayyed Mohammad Mumi, says learning German facilitates his daily life. He fled from Somalia and came to Switzerland in 2008. His asylum request was rejected, but he obtained temporary admission to Switzerland because he currently can't be sent back to his homeland. "For the first six months of my stay, I could attend classes," Mumi says. "Because the follow-up course is booked up, I decided to join the class at the autonomous school."

Bah Saidou, Mumi's teacher, seems to enjoy teaching German. He's assisted by a lady from Zurich. Irene Holliger says she's amazed by the students' motivation to learn and the joy in their eyes. She regards her engagement as an act of solidarity: "I'm retired. I have free time and want to support the refugees. All of us work as volunteers."

Although the autonomous school is in a squatted building, some expenses accrue. Berhanu Tesfaye regrets that some students can't attend all three classes per week. "Many students live in emergency centres far away from the school. We've raised some money with fundraising meals and a party. This allows us to cover travel expenses for many of the students, but it's not sufficient." Sans-papiers receive the equivalent of 60-70 Swiss francs (about as many dollars) per week if they register at the Department of Migration in Zurich. The amount isn't paid in cash, but in cheques for the biggest Swiss supermarket chain Migros.

Hardly able to survive on their cheques, the sans-papiers are bound to spend all of the money at Migros. More than a year ago, they and their supporters started to undermine the authorities' practice. Once a week they gather at the Refugees Welcome Café in Zurich, where they can sell their cheques for cash. This allows the migrants to spend their limited income a little more freely, for example for train tickets.

Bah Saidou is disturbed by the fact that Swiss politicians keep demanding foreigners' integration into Swiss society, but don't give them an opportunity to do so. His colleague Berhanu Tesfaye agrees: "Integration consists of different aspects such as access to education, the labour market and decent housing. However, we have no chance to visit a school, are forbidden to work, and live in fenced-off emergency-centres often far away from towns and villages." The autonomous school sent letters to communal authorities, asking for financial support to cover people's travel costs. The call has remained unanswered so far.

Undocumented migrants live in constant fear of being arrested, imprisoned and deported. On the blackboard of Saidou's classroom, a picture reminds students of Maria Dennis Díaz, a fellow sans-papiers who was deported to Colombia on Sep. 20. Diaz had lived in Switzerland for 12 years. Her 17- year-old son Juan Jacobo was also arrested. Despite being under-age, he was separated from his mother and is currently in custody.

Nevertheless, Tesfaye says he isn't afraid of a police raid at the school. "The police know that I live in an emergency centre. If they want to arrest me, they can come there or send me a summoning. Learning a language isn't a criminal act anyway."

Zurich's authorities are aware of the school. Hans Hollenstein, the canton's security director, admits the school is doing something positive. "They allow the migrants some integration for the time being. We can tolerate that. However, I want to make clear that these people are illegally here and have to leave the country as soon as possible."

For the activists, the school isn't just about the language classes. Bah Saidou, a major contributor to the sans-papiers' campaign, explains: "This is my way to struggle. We have realised that we have to stick together. The school is part of our struggle." Since squatting the church last winter, Zurich's sans-papiers have kept demanding better living conditions. "Unlike Zurich, governments of other cantons have proved more flexibility with sans-papiers," adds Tesfaye. "That's why we've started to establish our own structures. After squatting the church, we've talked to a lot of politicians and succeeded in raising awareness for the conditions we're living in, but on the ground nothing has improved so far."

In mid-August, one of the sans-papiers' busiest activists, Ishmail Fayé, was arrested. The man from Sierra Leone had prevented several deportation attempts. For the past year, he lived under Zurich's emergency regime and was forced to move from one emergency centre to the next on a weekly basis. Currently in custody at Zurich's airport prison, Fayé speaks of the canton's policy: "They want us to leave the country. That's why they're applying this strict regime. They try to make your life unbearable, so you leave."

The campaign for collective regularization, the right to stay for all, faces a rocky path. While other European countries such as Italy or Spain have repeatedly granted collective regularisations for thousands of undocumented migrants, Switzerland's government remains far from even considering it an option.

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.

October 1, 2009

"Nahr al-Bared Reconstruction Delays Protested"

Since the end of August, construction equipment in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, near the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, has stood unused after the Lebanese State Council granted a two month moratorium for the reconstruction of the camp. Nahr al-Bared, home to approximately 30,000 refugees, was destroyed during a three-month-long battle between the Lebanese army and the militant group Fatah al-Islam in the summer of 2007.

Although a master plan for the reconstruction was already compiled by early 2008 and approved by the Lebanese government, the beginning of the construction works was delayed again and again. Ancient ruins were discovered beneath the rubble of the camp this spring, but few among the refugees believed the reports. For the last two years they heard too many -- often flimsy -- reasons for repeated delays in the reconstruction of the camp.

However, the archaeological findings were legitimate and the Lebanese Directorate General for Antiquities (DGA) became involved. Along with the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) and the office of the Lebanese prime minister, a solution was found: before the different sectors of the old camp would be backfilled and the concrete foundations laid, the DGA would excavate and document the archaeological findings.

The delay is understandably frustrating for refugees who could hardly believe their eyes when, after almost two years, reconstruction finally began in Nahr al-Bared late last June. According to UNRWA, the backfilling first stage of the eight-stage plan was almost complete by the end of August and the laying of the concrete foundation was about to start when the agency was ordered by the Lebanese government to halt construction.

Amr Saededine, an organizer with the Nahr al-Bared Reconstruction Commission, told The Electronic Intifada, "There is a real fear in the camp based on previous experiences that the displacement will continue and they will not be allowed to return to Nahr al-Bared," referring to camps like Nabatiyeh, Tel al-Zatar and even areas of Shatila that were destroyed in the past and never rebuilt.

The leader of the opposition-aligned Free Patriotic Movement, former Lebanese General Michel Aoun, filed a plea this summer against the government's decision regarding the backfilling of the camp. On 18 August, the English-language Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star reported that the State Council, in light of Aoun's request, granted a moratorium for the time being. A definitive decision is expected in October.

Representatives of the Nahr al-Bared Reconstruction Commission accuse Lebanese politicians of using the archaeological findings for scoring political gains. The commission points to a discourse demanding the transformation of the ancient ruins into a tourist site. In a recent speech, Michel Aoun denied delaying the reconstruction of Nahr al-Bared but said: "It is the government's responsibility to purchase substitute lands to build the camp on, instead of rebuilding on the site where an archeological discovery was recently made." The commission meanwhile rejects resettling the refugees on lots surrounding Nahr al-Bared, calling Aoun's intentions "theoretical and unworkable."

Thousands of Nahr al-Bared residents organized a massive protest at the end of August at the entrance to the construction site, which was complemented by protests in other Palestinian refugee camps throughout Lebanon. Criticism not only targeted the halting of reconstruction, but also the Lebanese army's continued siege of the camp. The Lebanese army controls movement inside and at the perimeters of Nahr al-Bared, isolating the camp's residents and crippling its economy. On 16 September, the refugees took their protest to the streets of Tripoli where they were joined by Lebanese supporters.

Three protesters were shot dead and many others wounded at a demonstration during the military operations in Nahr al-Bared at the end of June 2007. Since then, protests have been limited to non-confrontational gatherings, but at a press conference on 3 September, activists from Nahr al-Bared hinted at launching a series of nonviolent direct actions and more strategic campaigns.

Saededine of the reconstruction commission stated that these latest protests were just the beginning: "There is an escalation happening now in the organizing against the halt to reconstruction. [The protests] began in Nahr al-Bared, then [the nearby refugee camp of] Baddawi, then Tripoli and next Beirut." He said that there would be a sit-in held on 12 October in downton Beirut "organized by all the camps in Lebanon, saying that we will not accept [a failure] to reconstruct Nahr al-Bared. This is also supported by forces in the Lebanese civil society [movement]."

Nahr al-Bared's refugees meanwhile stick to a slogan they've been using since the first days of their displacement in 2007. At the nearby Baddawi refugee camp, displaced families had taken refuge in schools which they refused to leave for other temporary shelter, claiming that they would only be satisfied by a return to Nahr al-Bared camp -- or to their property in Palestine.

This report was first published here by Electronic Lebanon.