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Kicking the black sheep while it’s down

By Clarissa Keil - posted Monday, 5 November 2007

A white sheep kicks a black sheep off the Swiss flag.  This campaign poster from the populist right-wing Swiss People’s Party was causing controversy in Switzerland ahead of a federal election a few weeks ago.  The Party’s campaign message was specific: Switzerland must expel all foreign residents who have committed crimes within their borders if the country is to ‘achieve security’.

Anti-immigrant sentiment in Switzerland is rife, in particular towards foreigners from the Balkans.  This is largely due to recent government reports indicating that criminal offenders in Switzerland were nearly four times more likely to be immigrants than Swiss citizens.  The publicity surrounding the rape of a five-year old girl by two Kosovo Albanian boys in 2006 added fuel to the fire.

It is evident that there are significant problems with the integration of immigrants into Swiss society.  It is usually expected that immigrants learn to speak the host nation’s language, obey its laws and understand its predominant values.  However the host nation and its people also share a responsibility for integration, beyond the mere opening of their borders.  After all, to integrate means to ‘combine into an integral whole’.


Support programs for new immigrants to Switzerland, including language training, education, employment assistance and mental health programs, have historically been poor.  Many immigrants therefore routinely fail to emerge from the lower socio-economic groups and this goes some way towards explaining the higher levels of criminality.  A report card from the last census held in the canton of Basel Stadt paints a worrying picture.  Unemployment amongst Swiss foreigners is twice the rate of its citizens.  The disposable income of immigrants is on average one fifth lower.  There are large gaps in the attendance of higher education institutions between the two groups.  And foreigners must make do with two-thirds the living space occupied by the average Swiss citizen.

An Austrian truck driver who has been living and working in Switzerland for more than a decade insists that foreigners are also routinely paid a lower salary than Swiss citizens for doing exactly the same job.  But still he says that he is very lucky because at least he is ‘white’ and speaks fluent German.  "I’m only in the second class, along with the Italians," he says, "while the ex-Yugoslavs and any Muslims are in the third class.  Swiss people look right through them and would love to kick them out if they didn’t need them to do all the dirty work for them".

Institutionalised discrimination in Switzerland also hinders integration.  For example, an immigrant’s application for citizenship used to be decided by plebiscites, and no reasons for rejection had to be provided to applicants.  This led to citizenship applications being rejected by communities based on the ethnic background of applicants.  In 2003, the Swiss Federal Court ruled this practice as unconstitutional and discriminatory, but the Swiss People’s Party has since set in motion a new referendum to return to the original model.  Such assertions of moral superiority cannot be a constructive step towards building an integrated society.  Nor can the fact that it takes twelve years before a Swiss immigrant becomes eligible for citizenship.

Switzerland has received ongoing criticism about racism and xenophobia from Doudou Diène, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.  Earlier this year Diène lodged a UN report urging the Swiss government to develop "a national programme of action against racism and xenophobia comprising national legislation", and "a cultural and ethical strategy for the long-term construction of a multicultural society".  Last month Diène requested that the Swiss People’s Party withdraw the sheep campaign materials from circulation as they promote racism.

Despite the current climate in Switzerland, it is clear that successful integration is not unattainable.  Ricardo Lumengo, an asylum seeker from Angola who arrived in Switzerland in 1982 at the age of 20, was the first black candidate to be elected into the House of Representatives at the election a few weeks ago.  The practising lawyer speaks eight languages and has been a Swiss citizen for ten years.

To encourage more such success stories, the Swiss government and its people should fully embrace their responsibilities and focus on identifying how they can better encourage integration, rather than building a fortress.  All forms of discrimination and vilification should be tackled, and best practice support programs for all new arrivals and existing immigrants implemented.


Instead, the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, who won the largest number of seats in the election a few weeks ago, is whipping the population into a xenophobic frenzy.  This is likely to only raise the level of violence in a once harmonious nation.  According to a UK newspaper, many of the Swiss People’s Party campaign posters have been defaced in its capital, Bern, where left and right wing protesters clashed violently earlier this month.  One defaced poster apparently shows a black sheep urinating into the mouth of the Party leader.  Unfortunately it is all too often a self-fulfilling prophecy - if you treat an entire ethnic group like potential criminals, chances are they will eventually fulfil your expectations.  And the inevitable road to integration will just become longer and leave more casualties along the way.

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About the Author

Clarissa Keil is a freelance writer focused on Trade, Public Policy and Immigration.

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