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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Blogging around the globe: updates from study abroad

By Wes Alcenat

Wed., Feb. 18, 2009The culture of information in Switzerland is beneficial to the curious foreigner. Several small newspapers are free and readily available every morning to inform the population about current events. I picked up one of those newspapers at the Geneva train station, and by chance stumbled on one of the controversial debates circulating the news. The issue of immigration was much on the mind of the Swiss people. As the supreme authority of Switzerland, the people decide [on Feb. 8, 2009] whether to open the Swiss labor market to Bulgarian and Romanian migrant workers. Issues of security, integration and job preservation surfaced in the debate. Intrigued by the arguments, I decided to explore people’s attitudes prior to casting their votes on the matter.

Learning the fears, worries and hopes of the Swiss people on the state of immigrants in the country is not an easy task. The views of a few people greatly risk generalizing the population as a whole… First, I interviewed several people that I have met during my daily interactions in Geneva and Bern…Second, I describe their views in an objective fashion meant to capture the direct thoughts of the interviewees. Third, I proceed to analyze the views and opinions into an overall body of collective, but general, feelings about the various perspectives held on immigrants and immigration. Fourth and final, I synthesize the relative perspectives in a broad analysis that condenses what I have learned into what I think it means and says about Switzerland’s people.

Generally put, Switzerland-Geneva especially-is an international hub of businesses and social activism, and it shows through the people that walk its streets. However, cross-cultural contact, even in a global city like Geneva, is not always a panacea for easing tensions between different groups. In some instances, it can elevate racial, ethnic and cultural tensions. The country still deals with xenophobia and has yet to integrate into the European Union.

Pavle Krivokapic, a Serbian student in Geneva, says that reactions to the mention of his nationality are not always welcoming. He struggles to explain to people that yes he comes to Switzerland to benefit from its good educational system, but not to over-exploit it…he is viewed as wanting to extend his stay without propermdocumentation, thus positing him as a crime suspect [even though] he works legally, is temporarily residing here during his studies and plans to go home after. He acknowledges that Switzerland offers the potential to live a life of comfort that is unavailable in Montenegro, his home country…The work culture, he argues, allow for a good lifestyle but he does not want to have to live under the scrutiny of being eyed suspiciously simply because he is Eastern European. He thinks it is quite reasonable that Bulgarians and Romanians want to move freely to work here, but he is skeptical on whether the financial benefits will outweigh the social rejection.

Barrelet Claude, a Swiss man of the middle class, validates Krivokapic’s assertions…He recounts that the xenophobia goes as far back as 30 to 40 years ago…Those who fear the migrant workers, he argues, are blind to the fact that they are reaping the benefits of workers without which they could not maintain the high standard of living…. He points to his Italian background for his firm belief that Switzerland needs individuals like himself, successful workers of the immigrant population. However, he says that his embracive approach does not excuse the fact that some immigrants exploit the social security system without having worked much. He was careful to point, that the people he refers to constitute a minority and should not be the measure sticks of the progress of immigrants. Mulone also says that it is not wrong for the Swiss to require that others integrate and follow the law. Assimilation, as he sees it, does not come at the sufferance of one’s culture.

Timon Spoerri, a young person from Bern…opines that immigrants are without a doubt a great source of Switzerland’s wellbeing. He voted yes for freeing the borders and welcoming migrant workers from Eastern Europe. He also reiterates the point that to live comfortably in Switzerland, an immigrant should expect to be integrated into Swiss life…Equally put, says Spoerri, Swiss must learn to accept those who look different from them, restrict their discriminatory instincts, and assume the best. From his perspective, immigrants have always contributed more good than harm to Switzerland and that fears are just overhyped nationalism to refuse cooperation with the European Union…

Without casting judgment on the Swiss people, it is fair to say that Switzerland has a great deal of xenophobia. Krivokapic’s pessimistic outlook on the internal relations between the Swiss and immigrants is a case on point. His skepticism stems from suspicion that he finds to be unwarranted and without proofs. One might be quick to interpret his opinion as skewed because he is an immigrant…As is evident from the conversations that I have had with Swiss themselves, there is a great deal of xenophobia and it shows in Claude’s assertion that it follows a historic precedent. The faces of the immigrants have changed but the attitudes towards immigrants in general seem to have remained despite the market openness of the Swiss labor industry.

The reluctance to open borders, even where the Swiss themselves are benefiting from multinational jobs, is a paradox. While the Swiss I have talked to admonish other Swiss for their xenophobic ways, they also recognize that people tend to fear what they do not know. People are afraid of immigrants possibly because they look different. The strongest argument that the Swiss have made so far is the fact that as much as they would like to open the border, they fear losing their jobs and along with them a strong mode of living…The question to be asked then is whether the Swiss people feel like their livelihood is under threat from foreigners or are simply unwelcoming. They do believe in a better-unified Europe but often refuse the trade-off accepting more foreigners. In the end, my observations are not sufficient to place a verdict simply on what a few people have articulated.

…Thus, my general assessment is that the xenophobia that once dogged relations between immigrants and Swiss is on the decline. Levels of charges like potential job loss, an increase in crime activities, and social costs to the states did not stop the people to accept their neighbors. The people I have spoken to and their Swiss counterparts agree, Switzerland is moving closer to Europe and in process will be more open and acceptable to immigrants. Change is slow coming, they all said, but it will come gradually. I could not agree more with this assertion.

This blog’s length was edited to fit The Mac Weekly’s space. To read this entire blog and more of Wes’s blogs, vist:

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