July 6, 2010

"Swiss Knives Out for Migrants"

The disputed 'black sheep' placards may soon return to Swiss streets. The country's Federal Council and parliament have validated a right-wing initiative calling for the automatic deportation of criminal foreigners.

Foreigners make up almost 22 per cent of the country's 7.8 million inhabitants. These include people of European origin. Campaigns against foreign residents have become regular to Switzerland.

In 2008, the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) handed in an initiative demanding automatic expulsion of foreign criminals. The list of covered crimes includes rape, murder, robbery, drug-dealing, burglary and betrayal of the social insurance system.

The SVP launched the initiative in 2007, only a few months ahead of national elections. Its campaign mainly built on a controversial banner depicting a black sheep being kicked out of the country, accompanied by the words "Establish security".

The campaign was harshly criticized by migrants' organisations, left-wing parties and the Federal Commission against Racism. The Swiss Refugee Council (SFH) called the initiative "extremely questionable" and said its implementation would violate international law.

Automatic deportation of convicted foreigners contradicts the non-refoulement principle in international law, which prohibits expulsion to countries where a person could face prosecution. The initiative also violates the Swiss constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Because of the agreement on free movement of persons with the European Union, almost two-thirds of Switzerland's foreign population can't be expelled. The initiative therefore creates a discriminatory split within the foreigners, because it effectively only concerns people of non-European origin.

Despite the efforts of the Green Party and the Social Democrats (SP), the Federal Council and both chambers of the parliament have failed to invalidate the initiative. Swiss citizens will be asked to cast their vote Nov. 28 this year.

In the National Council, debates were heated. Walter Wobmann (SVP) said: "In Switzerland the people are sovereign and the sovereign doesn't have to pay attention to an elastic, undefinable international law." He said "Switzerland can't become a land of milk and honey for foreign criminals."

Andrea Geissbühler (SVP) claimed that "most of those foreign criminals are unteachable and laugh about our system. Once they leave prison, they straightaway commit the next crime." She added that foreigners "don't pay fines, as most of them anyway live at the state's expense."

Currently, 350 to 400 foreigners are being deported yearly in application of the existing law. Alard du Boys-Reymond, director of the Federal Office for Migration (FOM), expects the number to quadruple in case the initiative is approved.

Fearing the initiative's success, the government and a parliamentary majority support a counterproposal which will be presented to the voters. But this is largely congruent with the deportation initiative. But it does seek practicability and accordance with international law. Under the counterproposal, the degree of penalty and not the commitment of specific offences will decide automatic expulsion.

The counterproposal split the left, as some representatives chose to support it. "We try to avoid the worse. It's a choice between pest and cholera," said Maria Roth-Bernasconi (SP).

"Most supporters of the counterproposal basically agree with the SVP's agenda-setting, but regard it as poorly shaped," says Balthasar Glättli, secretary-general of Solidarité sans frontières (Sosf).

Gianni D'Amato, director of the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies at the University of Neuchâtel stresses that other parties have often tried to take the wind out of the SVP's sails by making concessions. "This way the discourse is moved in favour of the SVP, putting the right-wing party into a hegemonic position."

The success of the SVP in the past four elections has frightened the rest of the political spectrum. The right-wing party increased its share of the vote from 12 percent in 1991 to 29 percent in 2007. It holds 55 of 200 seats in the National Council.

The SVP launched or announced migration or asylum-related initiatives ahead of the past four elections. "In Switzerland's direct democracy, initiatives not only force a nationwide vote, but also put political pressure on the legislature and shape the agenda-setting," says Gianni D'Amato.

Adrian Hauser from SFH says foreigner criminality is often hyped up by the right-wing in order to spread fear. Gianni D'Amato adds that the discourse suggests that the origin of a person is the main cause for her or his deviant behaviour. "In contrast, deviance of Swiss citizens is usually explained with psychological factors."

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