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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 8/11/13

Switzerland moves to segregate asylum seekers

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Message Thelma Mueller

Old Zürich
Old Zürich
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This is the statement the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued on the raising of the Swiss flag in September 2002 after welcoming the Swiss Confederation as a member state of the United Nations. He said, "Switzerland a vivid example of what the United Nations stands for -- a peaceful and multicultural society built on strong democratic traditions. A small country with a large world presence, a home to many humanitarian organizations, a thriving private sector and the largest United Nations headquarters outside New York. A country which has learnt to retain its own traditions and cultures while benefiting from the openness in our globalizing world." So, what's up Switzerland?!!

The country has come under the radar of human rights watch groups recently for its "Let's keep them in their place" mentality by some Swiss towns who are moving to put segregation in place which is being likened to apartheid-like restrictions. In an effort to tighten asylum laws and to to keep a handle on the influx of asylum-seekers, Roman Staub, mayor of a town called Menzingen is calling for a ban of asylum-seekers in "sensitive areas" such as schools. He further added and shamelessly I might add, "This is certainly a very difficult area because here asylum-seekers could meet our schoolchildren - young girls or young boys." In another town, Bremgarten, a church has been deemed off-limits to asylum-seekers. Other towns are adding public places such as swimming pools, football pitches and libraries as off-limit areas to asylum-seekers citing heightened tension between the two groups for the restrictions.

Shocking? IT IS. Human rights groups are calling the move racist and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has voiced its concerns. "In order to encourage a welcoming environment for people who are uprooted and often vulnerable, it is important to reinforce public messages which aim at avoiding the risk of stigmatization of asylum-seekers and also at promoting refugees integration. In many cases we are talking about children, women, men who fled from war and persecution and wish as much as possible to go back to a normal life." Mario Gattiker, Head of Switzerland's Migration Ministry has a different viewpoint and feels that the rules are a necessity. He was quoted as saying that the rules were introduced to keep an "ordered" and conflict-free" relationship between the asylum-seekers and residents. Perhaps, Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher for Human Rights Watch says it best. "For Switzerland, the home of the United Nations and its refugee agency to introduce a blatantly discriminatory policy that effectively segregates asylum-seekers from the communities in which they live in is shocking. The Swiss authorities should encourage all Swiss communities to treat some of the world's most vulnerable people with respect and dignity, rather than reinforcing prejudice and division."

Oprah Winfrey brought the issue to the forefront recently after a visit to Zurich to attend friend Tina Turner's wedding. The billionaire and one of the world's richest woman walked into the high-end Trois Pommes store and asked to see a handbag. The assistant told her, "No, it's too expensive." Oprah walked out of the store quietly but later said, "there were two different ways to handle it. I could've had the blow-up thing "but racism still exists, of course it does." Trudie Goetz, store owner, has since apologized for the incident sweeping it under the rug and hoping it will never see the light of day as a misunderstanding rather than racism. And what might that misunderstanding be, Ms Goetz?

Could the curbing of asylum-seekers freedom of movement be used to keep all foreigners in their place as it happened with Ms Winfrey and more importantly, how do you tell an asylum-seeker apart from a normal someone who is not? Now, that's where this "divide and conquer" method gets iffy. Do you go by looks, the colour of the person's skin or does it apply to anyone who is not blonde and blue-eyed and doesn't fit into Switzerland's idea of who fits in and who doesn't OR do you have to be a card-carrying member?

It was a proud day in September 2002 when Switzerland joined as a member state and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, "Seeing the Schweizerkreuz flying proudly among the flags of our Member States is a moving sight for all who believe in the values and ideals of the United Nations---not least for me personally." Is it time to lower the flag?

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Thelma Mueller is a writer residing in Germany but has lived in Asia and America for many years. She writes for an international online magazine daily and has published short stories, a children's book and is currently working on a novel. Her (more...)

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