Friday, August 9, 2013

Swiss Miss Profiling Debate in Asylum Diss

I had to read it twice.

"Non-whites may have a negative impact on tourism."

Now, where would you think such a sentiment is possible?  Who would have the audacity to make such a claim?

Someplace in racially-polarized Mississippi, perhaps?  Or maybe a historic site in New England?  Along the exclusive Atlantic Ocean coastal resorts from Georgia to North Carolina?

Nope.  Switzerland.

Can you believe it?  Switzerland!  Home to the world-famous Swiss Alps, and all those quaint villages, and, apparently, a lot of racist white people.  Who'd have thunk it?!  The very heart of liberal, socialist, taxed-out-of-their-minds-and-loving-it Europe.

As a historically neutral country, Switzerland has traditionally been a prime haven for political refugees who've sought sanctuary from wars, persecution, and hatred in their native countries.  Recently, Switzerland has been veritably swamped with people seeking political asylum as a result of the many ethnic and religious conflicts raging in the Middle East and Africa.  Which has meant that many of the people petitioning for refugee status have dark skin.

Four of Switzerland's asylum-seekers at a repurposed military outpost.
They're black.  Oh, no!

Actually, the problem, as it relates to the number of asylum-seekers, is itself a legitimate one.  Switzerland is neither a big country geographically, or in terms of population numbers.  Yet it's currently housing twice as many asylum-seekers in proportion to its population as any other European country.  In Switzerland, there's one refugee for every 332 citizens, compared to one per 625 citizens in other European countries.  That's approximately 48,000 refugees with asylum cases being processed in Switzerland.

And it's not like Switzerland isn't getting ready to kick out all of these people.  They're being housed in military bunkers that have been converted to civilian use.  But the sheer volume of refugees is beginning to weigh on the Swiss citizenry, and they've recently voted into law some asylum restrictions that allow individual municipalities to begin segregating the refugee population from the citizenry at large.

Bremgarten, a town west of Zurich, is the first to draft "exclusion zones" from which refugees are forbidden from "loitering."  These exclusion zones include school playgrounds, a public swimming pool, and even - ironically - a church.  Other towns have announced plans to follow suit, including such places as libraries and an entire forest in their lists of areas off-limits to refugees.

A forest?

Britain's Independent reports that "some Swiss politicians have... complained that the presence of asylum-seekers in remote Alpine regions could have a negative impact on the tourist industry."

Again - I stare at the words I just typed, incredulous at their significance.

Perhaps you've heard that Oprah Winfrey is claiming to have been told recently by a clerk at an upscale boutique in Zurich that a $35,000 purse she wanted to see was "too expensive" for her.  The boutique's owner adamantly refutes Winfrey's allegation of racism, having suggested to the media that perhaps there was a language barrier between her employee, for whom English is a second language, and Winfrey.  However, knowing what we now know about what appears to be a growing weariness by the Swiss of tolerating non-whites, perhaps there's more validity to Winfrey's account than those of us who are not fans of hers might otherwise accord it.

Having worked six years in high-dollar retail myself, many moons ago, I can speak for any reputable salesperson by saying that one learns quickly not to judge books by their cover on the sales floor.  If somebody wants to look at a $35,000 item, which likely carries a highly desirable commission rate, you don't deny them!  And what kind of shop owner puts employees on the floor who can't communicate linguistically with customers who might be interested in purchasing a purse - of all things - for the ridiculous price of $35,000?

And as for creating exclusion zones so white people don't need to be threatened by the appearance of any refugee skin, why was this idea not codified into law years ago, when Switzerland's refugees were mostly white?  The Swiss say they want to discourage drug traffic or other activities that don't fit with the Swiss way of life, but surely asylum-seekers from Poland, France, Italy, and Russia have brought with them customs and habits that aren't indistinguishable from the Swiss?

Why the need for these types of laws now?  Is it because there are so many refugees now?  The numbers were far higher during the two world wars from which Switzerland managed to be excluded, with approximately 115,000 asylum-seekers petitioning the Swiss in 1945.  Of course, the Swiss weren't too generous to the Jews during the Nazi reign in Europe during that time, forbidding religion or ethnicity from being considered as reasons to accept people fleeing Hitler's wrath.

So, does that make today's exclusion zones somehow more palatable?

Um... no.

It's one thing to sympathize with the Swiss for having to accommodate the bureaucratic and financial logistics of processing twice as many refugees proportionally as any other sister European country.  It's also understandable to be concerned about managing potentially combustible reactions between the staid, homogeneous Swiss and people arriving from countries where the rule of law and social conformity look quite, um, different.

But how can exclusion zones be any sort of humane method for managing what is undoubtedly a frustrating situation for both the Swiss, and those who want to become Swiss?  How would any enforcement of exclusion zones be accomplished other than by a racist form of profiling?  A lot of people complained that the United States forced immigrants into holding cells on Ellis Island - a dehumanizing process that my father's mother had to endure for nearly 24 hours.  But at least on Ellis Island, everybody was subjected to the same rules regardless of what they looked like, and they were all confined, removed from the general US population, until their paperwork was sorted out.  Maybe not a perfect system, but certainly a lot less racist than what the supposedly enlightened Swiss want to impose.

I guess the whole racial profiling debate we've had going on here in America hasn't gotten to Switzerland yet.

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