swissworld.org - Switzerland's official information portal

swissworld.org - Switzerland's official information portal

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Land of refuge

Macedonian asylum seekers under threat of deportation are given refuge by a Lausanne church, 2005

Macedonian asylum seekers under threat of deportation are given refuge by a Lausanne church, 2005© Julie Hunt / swissinfo

Switzerland is proud of its humanitarian tradition. It has long been a place of refuge for those persecuted for political reasons, and has in turn been enriched by the contribution they and their descendents have made to Swiss life.

However, during World War II Switzerland turned back or deported thousands of refugees, most of them Jews, on the grounds that racial, rather than political, persecution did not entitle them to asylum. The slogan used at the time was that "the boat is full." Others who were refused entry included Polish and Russian slave labourers, and French and Italian citizens trying to escape forced labour or military service under the Nazis.

During the Cold War Switzerland took in refugees from Hungary in 1956 and from Czechoslovakia in 1968 after Soviet troops crushed protest movements in those countries.

In recent years Switzerland has taken in refugees from conflict in various parts of the world. In 2004 the country with the greatest number of nationals in the process of applying for asylum was Serbia and Montenegro.

In proportion to its own population Switzerland receives more asylum applications than most other countries in Western Europe. According to the Federal Office for Migration, in the 21 months from the beginning of 2003 to the end of September 2004, there were 441 requests for every 100,000 head of population. Austria received the most, with 623.

The number of asylum seekers reached a peak in 1999, when 48,000 applications were made. Since 2002 applications have fallen back. In 2004 the figure was 14,250, the lowest for a decade, and nearly one third fewer than 2003.

"We feel we must tell you that in our school we are extremely concerned that refugees are being turned back without the least qualms to face conditions of terrible hardship... We would never have imagined that Switzerland, a haven of peace which claims to be a charitable country, could turn these unfortunate, shivering people away from its borders... What is the point of being able to say that Switzerland acted in a praiseworthy way during the last world war, if we have nothing positive to say about what has been done in the current one?... Perhaps you have had an order not to take in any Jews, but this is certainly not the will of God. Obedience to Him comes before obedience to men."

Extract from a letter dated September 7th 1942, sent to the government by a class of 14-year old girls from Rorschach, in eastern Switzerland. The government had just announced the closure of borders to refugees.

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