A Haven for Foreigners May Say 'Go Home'
| BERN, SWITZERLAND
THE tired, poor, and huddled masses of the world soon may find that Switzerland is pulling in its welcome mat.
Switzerland is considering legislation that would turn a cold shoulder toward immigrants - legal or illegal - whether they are seeking economic opportunity or refuge from political persecution.
One of the four main political parties here has proposed an initiative to control immigration that violates international law. While the initiative has nearly no chance of passing parliament, it attests to a growing antiforeigner feeling among many in Switzerland.
The proposal by the right-wing Swiss Democrats, called an Initiative for a Reasonable Asylum Policy, would deport all illegal immigrants seeking political asylum without investigating their cases. The initiative would violate the Geneva Convention on Human Rights, a treaty Switzerland has ratified.
Although the Federal Council, the executive branch of government, has voted down this initiative, noting its illegality, the measure awaits a hearing in the National Council, the lower house of parliament.
A second initiative, brought by the right-wing Swiss People's Party and called Against Illegal Immigration, would enable the government to hold the wages of anyone seeking permanent resident status until he or she left the country. Although it will be presented for a nationwide referendum next year, the initiative won't have parliament's recommendation because it violates equality laws.
A third initiative before parliament would limit the number of foreigners to no more than 18 percent of the population. Since foreigners already account for slightly more than that, 18.7 percent, it is doubtful that this measure could be enforced if passed, says Viktor Schlumpf, the spokesman for the federal Justice and Police Department.
There are 1.3 million foreigners living in Switzerland, according to the latest figures released by the Justice and Police Department. Of those, 43,000 are seeking political asylum.
''For some people, [asylum seekers] has become a problem,'' Mr. Schlumpf says. ''Some people here see asylum seekers as just getting apartments and things like social services without working for it. This creates bad feelings.''
Switzerland has a higher percentage of foreigners than any other European country, according to official statistics here. Italy has 2 percent, and France has 8 percent.
Switzerland's high percentage makes some Swiss feel uncomfortable.
''It's a problem here where there is such population density. If a couple in Bern walks down the street and sees foreigners all the time, they'll start to feel fear,'' says Myrtha Welte, general secretary of the Swiss People's Party. ''Being restrictive doesn't mean being racist. But if the Swiss population feels more and more under pressure, then racism will come.''
Views like these are pushing the government to examine several other possible measures.
These include denying seasonal workers permanent residency and prohibiting family reunification for seasonal workers.
''We need to look where we can do something without violating international law,'' said Arnold Koller, the minister of justice and police, in a written statement. ''If we don't do anything, I fear there will be an explosion here by the Swiss who don't want all these foreigners,'' he wrote.
One of the loudest calls to the government to take action came last December when 75 percent of the electorate voted for the Federal Law on Coercive Measures. This law permits the imprisonment of people awaiting deportation.
The problem of refugees, whether political or economic, increased after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, says Christiana Berthaiume, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
People from former Eastern bloc countries now are free to seek economic opportunities in Western countries, Ms. Berthaiume says.
In Switzerland, a document recently published by the Federal Office for Refugees concluded that immigrants must be discouraged from coming here for economic reasons.
The report also made clear that Swiss citizens must not protect refugees who are denied political asylum.
''Again and again we hear of cases in which individual church parishes consider it their moral duty to offer rejected asylum seekers protection,'' Uri Scheidegger, director of the Federal Office of Refugees, writes in the publication ''Asylum in Switzerland.''
''Anyone facilitating the stay of foreigners in Switzerland renders himself liable to prosecution,'' he says.
That hasn't stopped the country's clergy. From 1991 to 1993, many churches in Bern sheltered refugees from Kosovo, in the former Yugoslavia, who were denied asylum.
The churches never hid their actions from the police, and no one was prosecuted.
''Our point of view is simply this: We have a duty to take care of human rights,'' says Jean-Claude Huot, spokesman for the Justice and Peace Commission of the Roman Catholic Church's Swiss Bishops Conference.
''We must recognize that sometimes a decision by the state is wrong, and if we are deeply convinced it is wrong, then as citizens we must preserve basic values,'' Mr. Huot says.