Immigration in Switzerland: Facts and Phobias


Is immigration a problem? According to the media it is. According to certain political groups it is. In fact, in most of the rich countries of the world there are lobbies and blocs that oppose immigration on various grounds, in some cases going to great lengths to curtail it. No sooner had the Berlin Wall fallen than the United States was erecting another one between the US and Mexico. The former was to keep people in; the latter, to keep people out. Nick Griffin in Britain, Le Pen in France, Haider in Austria, Wilders in the Netherlands, Blocher in Switzerland, and numerous others throughout Europe, are exponents of similar strategies. They hammer away at the notion that foreigners are coming in to take advantage of liberal government policies in their respective countries meanwhile ruining the lives of the native population. This, they claim, can and must be stopped. To varying degrees they are successful in mobilizing their supporters electorally. Not surprisingly, spasmodic eruptions of neo-nazi or neo-fascist violence, while not officially sanctioned by these politicians, are nonetheless associated with their rhetoric. They are also often joined by religious figures who target Islam, linking it with the erosion of tradition and with every imaginable social ill from drugs and prostitution to terrorist plots to take over the world. Indeed, there is more than a whiff of the kind of hysteria that fueled anti-Jewish pogroms or witch-burning in the Middle Ages. The poisoning of the wells, eating of Christian babies, and sexual congress with the devil, bear too close a resemblance to present-day immigrant bashing to be dismissed as from a bygone era.

What is obscured by all this are certain facts. While they differ considerably from country to country they share common features from which one can safely conclude two things: immigration is increasing on a global scale, and it is fueled by the demands of capital. The fact that problems arise in countries of destination is no surprise. Whenever people with different languages, customs and histories arrive in large numbers in another country there will be misunderstandings, conflicts, even violence. But the fact that they are there is because their labor is required by employers in that country. In fact, in many cases, workers are actively recruited by businesses offering good pay, work permits, and so on. Moreover, in the countries of origin there must be a concomitant lack of employment providing adequate livelihoods or there would be no immigration, only tourism. Of course, there are refugees as well. But asylum seekers comprise a much smaller number than do "economic migrants" and, anyway, the ultimate causes are the same. What I want to focus on here is the situation in Switzerland. Its peculiar history differentiates it from other European countries in important ways which I'll go into further on. But for now the one to be kept in mind is this: unlike most of its neighbors Switzerland was never an imperial power. It had no colonies. Indeed, it has not fought a war outside its borders for 500 years.

A short time ago I received a document called Key Findings of the Swiss Labor Force Survey. It is the most recent publication of the Federal Statistical Office of Switzerland. Among many useful bits of information are the latest numbers of foreign workers in this country. There are 876,000 foreign workers as compared to 3.246 million of Swiss Nationality. 63.8% of all foreign workers in Switzerland come from EU or EFTA countries (the European Free Trade Agreement includes some countries like Norway and Switzerland that are not in the EU). This percentage is equal to 559,000 people. The survey further states: “Italians form the largest share (18.5%; 162,000), followed by the Western Balkans (18.4%; 161,000), Germans (13.1%; 115,000) and Portugese (12.5%; 110,000).” The remaining 36.2% are not specifically listed. I assume, with caution, that these others include two sub-groups. One contains workers from Asia (mainly Tamils), Turkey, and countries in the former Eastern Bloc who are not in the EU or EFTA. The other is people like me – by far the smallest number. These come from all over the world and are, for the most part, specialists or professionals in skilled positions. What can we conclude from these data?

First, the presence of non-Europeans in Switzerland is small. While Muslims and dark-skinned people are certainly more numerous than a decade ago they do not have any significant bearing on employment overall. Indeed, Switzerland has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world (3.6%) even as the work force continues to grow.

Second, the biggest number of foreign workers are coming from within Western Europe and not from outside of it. There are certainly differences between patterns in Switzerland and those in other neighboring countries. Germany, for example, has much larger numbers of Turkish immigrants, France, much larger numbers from Algeria and so on. Nevertheless, within Switzerland, workers are coming from countries relatively close by, particularly Germany and Italy which are adjacent.

Third, with the workforce expanding and unemployment low, it is clear that the problems of social integration are a complex of cultural, political and religious ones. They are not economic, as in competition for employment. If anything, one should conclude that by creative application of humanist principles, any problems arising from a growing diversity of people can be peacefully solved. Provided, of course, there is the will to do so. Where might that will come from?

When looking at the makeup of the population as a whole, 23% of the people residing in this country are not Swiss. But when you look at the makeup of this percentage, a gap appears beneath the numbers that bears closer scrutiny. People from the former Yugoslavia and Albania are viewed as "the problem" while Germans and Italians are not. In the former group there are many who have suffered war and poverty and would fit a similar profile to, say, Salvadoran or Nicaraguan workers in California. They sometimes have different religious and cultural practices, sometimes show no interest in becoming Swiss, and do, occasionally, have ties with underworld elements. (Albania, for example, has large smuggling operations involving everything from booze and cigarettes to weapons and sex slaves.) But there is no evidence that these people constitute some sort of "underclass" insidiously undermining Swiss life. Indeed, there are as many if not more among them with high standards of education (particularly those from the former Yugoslavia), and the vast majority are, as the figures state, gainfully employed. Thus, it can be safely concluded that the rhetoric of the SVP (the right-wing Swiss People's Party) is not supported by these facts. But is there nothing at all, then, to the controversy over immigration?

The answer to this comes in two parts. First, there is the large-scale movement of people seeking employment that is going on globally with special features in Europe. Second, there is the continuous and increasing destabilization of social life due to the movement of capital. In the first case a pattern is clearly established that is having repercussions in Europe. Most immigration is of Europeans moving within Europe itself. Additionally there are important African and Asian components. Within Europe the direction is east to west – not the other way. For example, Poles have left their country in large numbers to work in the UK, Ireland, and Spain, leaving a shortage of labor in Poland. At the same time, you won't find many Parisians migrating to Moscow for work. As for the non-European component, it has different effects in different countries, making it difficult to generalize except for one thing: the poverty inflicted on Africa and Asia by European and US neoliberalism (formerly known as imperialism) is the cause of an outward flow of people. Though specific wars and economic disasters can be blamed on local despots, all trace their origins to interventions on the part of the world's rich countries. There is simply no escaping this basic historical fact.

The second part of this is the global movement of capital. This has always and everywhere led to a destabilization of local economies and social life. When Nestlés comes into an African village and convinces mothers that breast feeding is dangerous and that, therefore, they'd be better off nursing their children on a Nestlés product, we see one example that typifies a much larger pattern. When the IMF or World Bank demands that, in return for capital investment, a country privatize its education, transportation and communications, it is not an aberration. It is not simply a bad man or bad policy but the way capital flows dictate how people will live (or not, as the case may be). This applies in peculiar ways within rich countries. So, for example, Swiss people might bemoan the loss of their traditions and blame foreigners for eroding them. But they are thereby overlooking the penetration of the farthest alpine valleys by real estate speculators and tourist industry overdevelopment and by TV, internet and radio transmitting, above all, American culture that contains more nihilistic decadence than anything coming out of the Balkans.

What has the greatest impact on settled, community life, then, are these often little-noticed but nonetheless gigantic forces. Indeed, there are few people anyone actually sees. One never sees a Banker or CEO come into their schools to sell drugs and pornography. Yet the sale of drugs and pornography is what fuels the internet. Most spam is for Viagra, penis enlargement or porn. When kids in a small Swiss town surf the internet who's twisting their arm? An Albanian narco-trafficker or Bill Gates?

Still, some people respond to racist and xenophobic appeals from the SVP. "In your face" marketing techniques and super-simple slogans have garnered 29% of the vote. What, so far, has been the result? The Federal Justice Minister, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, who is a member of the SVP, has said, as reported on, that she “was not asking for tougher laws for foreigners or laws against youth violence”; she considered current legislation sufficient. “But she added that its application needed to be stricter.” Think about it, though. This actually means NO CHANGE in law at all. One has to ask, what do they really want?

As far as I can see, the SVP offers no program other then banning minarets on mosques and cracking down on crime. They clearly support greater surveillance and regimentation of the populace, which, while ostensibly directed at foreigners, will affect everyone. Theirs is a message of fear. Meanwhile, this puts the SVP in direct conflict with Swiss business interests and ruling elites in general. In fact, the Swiss Business Federation, representing most of the country's employers, is strongly in favor of further easing of restrictions on immigration, particularly from Bulgaria and Romania (soon to join the EU). Ideologically and practically they support the free movement of capital and labor. But the SVP says nothing about capitalism, remaining silent in the face of the recent debacle engulfing the Swiss banking industry. This suggests that the SVP's sole purpose is to occupy the positions of power presently held by other parties. It is virulent in its opposition to the Social Democrats, whom it has specifically singled out as its target for removal from parliament.

While there's a faint echo of Nazis fighting Communists in Germany 1932, the situation here bears little resemblance to that one. Switzerland is a rich country, business is humming along, and people have little to complain about, at least economically. One is tempted, therefore, to dismiss this all as a farce. Its effect on immigration is likely to be negligible. But when seeking to explain and oppose the rise of right-wing groups it is necessary to gauge their actual effects. The net effect of the SVP's activity is to intensify social conflict and divert attention from the real sources of the problems confronting society. This explains why the apparent difference between the positions of the SVP and Swiss Business Federation conceal a deeper community of interest. Both benefit by exacerbating and manipulating divisions among the populace. Neither wants the Swiss people to unite in opposition to neoliberal policies or to the banks, insurance and chemical companies pursuing them.

How does this stack up with what others propose as better ways to achieve social integration of immigrants? Well, among teachers I've spoken with, it is often repeated that rampant consumerism and identification with certain aspects of popular culture are a greater problem than language or custom. The influence of gangster rap, sexually exploitative marketing and various drugs is far more onerous than anything specific to people’s country of origin. Headscarves and prayers may appear odd or backward but have nowhere near the pervasive effects of broadcast media, advertising and pop culture generally. What is being exposed by this whole controversy is, sad to say, the failure within Switzerland itself to clearly articulate social principles that could defend the country's populace from the destruction of its heritage by McDonalds or Starbucks or Microsoft. There is far greater damage caused to tradition and culture by financial speculation and "free-market" ideology than by immigrant groups insulating themselves in their own communities.

If one takes this only a small step further, one can see how Switzerland's own history shows that language and religion are not insurmountable obstacles to social integration. The wars fought between Protestants and Catholics were, in most of Europe, long and bloody (Ireland is still dealing with this). In Switzerland they were successfully resolved by compromise. The four official languages of the country are another example. While there are frictions between the Swiss German and the French speaking parts of the country, these never result in violence nor do they provoke any serious call for dissolution of the country (as they recently have in Belgium). So, the basis exists for vision and innovation if only the public good is made the common purpose of everyone.

Ultimately, the immigration controversy is a snare and a delusion designed to subvert unified opposition to the effects of capitalism. To deal with these requires a wide-ranging public discussion that would naturally include questions of labor, migration, education, religion, and so forth. But this can only take place in an atmosphere of mutual respect, not fear.