In the following piece, Christophe Tafelmacher analyses the striking similarities between Swiss policies with respect to asylum seekers, drug addicts and unemployed people. Denigration of the victims, emergency measures and increased policing are symptoms that highlight a trend towards an authoritarian system of government, the author suggests.
Christophe Tafelmacher is a lawyer and works as a legal counsellor in the refugee service of the Swiss Interchurch Aid.
He presented the following text at the occasion of a working meeting of the Geneva Group - Violence and Asylum in Europe, on 3 February 1996.



FECL 44 (June 1996):




In dealing with the three distinct and specific categories of citizens - refugees, drug addicts and unemployed people - certain similarities are striking in the attitudes shown by the public state authorities and the prevailing political trends.

Since this convergence does not seem to be accidental, my hypothesis is that we are dealing with a deliberate strategy.

I will try here to briefly describe these similarities. In my conclusion, I wish to present some of my reflections based on these findings.


Rise in numbers and denigration

The first thing that strikes me is the way in which the state and politicians have tried to cope with the steadily spreading three societal phenomena (drug addiction, refugee influx and unemployment) - and with the increasing number of people directly or indirectly demanding assistance or some other form of action from the public authorities.

Indeed, since the beginning of the 80s, Switzerland has experienced the arrival of a steadily increasing number of asylum seekers, from 7,000 in 1984 to more than 40,000 in 1991. Very soon, the authorities adopted an aggressive language in the face of what they termed a "massive influx". At that time, the term "bogus refugee" was created - a term to which all societal actors were to refer to ever since. The term was widely used by Government officials in charge of asylum policies. The distinction made between "genuine" and "bogus" refugees was quickly accepted by a wide public and is now a natural part of popular discourse.

In the beginning of the 1990s, the same phenomenon reproduced itself, this time with respect to the unemployed. The economic crisis which hit Switzerland led to an explosion of unemployment statistics. Before, unemployment was virtually non-existent in Switzerland. Today, about 150,000 people are dependent of unemployment benefits (six per cent of the working population). This extraordinary development very soon resulted in the denigration of the victims by the Head of the Federal Labour Board. This senior official claimed that many among those receiving unemployment benefits were actually "bogus unemployed". This term hit home with the public and has been frequently used in subsequent debates ever since.

Finally, one can observe that the emergence of "open scenes" of illicit drugs sales and consumption which made the problems of drug addicts visible to everybody on the streets entailed increasing mass-media coverage which in its turn triggered a polemic political debate. The drug addicts were stigmatised as "mentally sick persons" or "criminal abusers". In public perception, the problem was often linked to immigration, due to the presence of Lebanese, Nigerian or Kosovo-Albanian dealers.


The consequences of denigration: state of emergency policies and restricted rights

The large press coverage of all the above phenomena was linked to a veritable campaign of denigration. The ensuing widespread indignation manifestly provided the public justification for adopting "restrictive policies". It is striking how this key term appears time and again in the three domains considered. The bogus unemployed, the bogus refugee and the criminal or mentally sick drug addict are to become the objects of repressive measures and increased social control within the scope of a restrictive general policy that has become legitimate in the eyes of a large part of the population.

The use of a denigrating language made it possible to create an atmosphere of extreme suspicion. By using the label "bogus" or "delinquent", one induces the perception that we are dealing with profiteers and parasites, in short, people who do not deserve any sympathy. This legitimises the adoption not only of restrictive but also of veritable state of emergency measures.

Indeed, this is another similarity between the three domains considered: When the situation appears to be dramatic enough, due to increasing statistical figures and denigration, one can easily get the Parliament, or even the people, to vote federal emergency decrees. The choice of this particular legal instrument seems significant to me. To begin with, its adoption procedure is characterised by the extreme rapidity of the elaboration of the regulation and of the parliamentary debate, as well as by its immediate entry into force. Even the launching of a referendum procedure does not delay the entry into force of an emergency decree. Thus, public and democratic debate is short-circuited in order to enable the rapid implementation of emergency measures. The latter are subsequently integrated into ordinary legislation, once they have become normal practice.

As regards asylum, the Government got a federal emergency decree pertaining to the asylum examination procedure voted in 1990. In 1993, the Parliament adopted a similar decree pertaining to the unemployed. A package of measures for coping with the problem of drug addicts dependent of assistance, was decided by the Government in 1991. Finally, in 1995, a committee on drug policies of the three largest governing political parties recommended the introduction of emergency legislation even in this domain.

In the two first cases mentioned above, the federal decrees adopted in accelerated procedures contained direct and serious infringements of the rights of asylum seekers and also unemployed people, such as, for example, the possibility of refusing a substantive examination of an asylum application, the reduction of unemployment-insurance allocations and the obligation for unemployed persons to accept any work deemed "suitable".

In all three cases, an alleged emergency situation is used as a justification of political proceedings in which an often strong dissenting opinion does not have to be taken into account. As for the Swiss people, the outcome of all referendum votes in the three domains from 1993 to 1995 shows that they tend to side with the Government.


Scornful treatment of the people concerned

The scornful and sometimes brutal treatment of asylum seekers, unemployed people and drug addicts in need of assistance is another consequence of the campaign of denigration.

Asylum seekers get the words "uncertain identity" stamped in their documents and are discriminated against by federal and local authorities. In the town of Thune, for instance, asylum seekers received social benefits in the form of special "asylum seeker-coins" accepted only at certain shops. The local authorities idea, was to prevent asylum seekers from unnecessary and expensive shopping. In the town of Bauma, asylum seekers were denied entry to the municipal swimming pool. A disquieting number of cases of ill-treatment of asylum seekers during their interrogation by the police has also been reported.

Unemployed people are complaining about the attitude of unemployment insurance personnel and have launched a petition demanding "respectful and dignified" treatment.

As regards the drug addicts, the homeless are most exposed to humiliating treatment. In Berne, a group of high-school students set up structures in support of homeless addicts. The group has documented the numerous forms of violence these people are regularly subjected to: police hunts, ill-treatment, attempts to prevent them from eating the free meals distributed by a "street kitchen" ...

Unfortunately, many politicians, as well as a large part of the Swiss population consider this type of abuse as almost natural or acceptable, since the victims of such practices are widely considered as spongers and criminals...


Measures of constraint, privation of liberty

The concept of constraint was introduced in the field of aliens law by the adoption of a law on "compulsory measures" allowing, inter alia, to constrain a foreigner to stay inside or outside a particular area on public order grounds (see FECL No.30: "'COMPULSORY MEASURES' AGAINST FOREIGNERS APPROVED IN REFERENDUM VOTE"). This regulation enables authorities to sanction innocent aliens for alleged anti-social or restive behaviour. Non-compliance with such a measure of confinement can entail imprisonment. The new measure is aimed particularly against asylum seekers.

The latest amendment of the law on the unemployment insurance provides for the authorities to constrain an unemployed person to accept any work deemed "suitable". Any refusal to accept such work or the fact of not being hired for an assigned job can entail the suspension of unemployment benefits.

As regards drug addicts, the Federal Law on Narcotics introduced in 1975 allows for the hospitalisation by constraint of addicts. In the 1990s, certain circles advocating particularly harsh "War on drugs" policies publicly demanded that drug addicts be subjected to confinement for therapy purposes. In my opinion, this amounts to medical treatment by constraint.

In all three cases we can note that public authorities are expected to impose a behaviour on certain categories of citizens in an authoritarian manner, or even to punish those who fail to comply. According to this logic, these persons are denied the capacity of subjects of right, while the authority is entrusted with extensive powers of decision-making.

In the same way it is interesting to see that, in 1993, the Canton of Zurich created a "returnee centre" for drug addicts. Any drug addict not residing in Zurich can be confined to this centre and deprived of drugs for 24 hours before being sent back to his/her home town. Beyond the fact that these "internments" and "forcible returns" violate the freedom of residence on the entire territory of the country, guaranteed by the Swiss Federal Constitution, the resemblance of this practice with the forcible return of foreigners and asylum seekers is striking. Indeed, the language and the measures resorted to with respect to drug addicts and asylum seekers are tending to get confounded.


The army against drug addicts and asylum seekers

In 1991, Switzerland experienced a particularly massive arrival of asylum seekers and the Government adopted the "Programme 1991/1992 regarding asylum". It consisted of implementing all measures provided for by the federal emergency decree of 1990 with regard to asylum procedures, and, beyond this, it contained a set of new proposals for action. Two ideas, in particular, drew a lot of attention: the setting up of internment camps for 200-500 persons each, that could be guarded by the army; and, the use of the army for border surveillance in order to fight against illegal entries. An inter-ministerial working group was charged with drafting a plan for the deployment of army units. A number of army units even took part in a military exercise with the code-name LIMES, i.e the Latin word used by the Romans for the borders of their empire with the barbarians.

The proposal was denounced as totally unrealistic and inept not only by the Church, but even by right-wing politicians and senior police officers. However, only in April 1992 did the Federal Government renounce to resorting to the emergency provision allowing for the use of the army at the border.

In 1994, the then Federal Minister of Defence, Kaspar Villiger, proposed army assistance to the authorities of Zurich, confronted with the problem of the open drug scene in the city. Three options were considered: "background" presence of the army; use of army material and infrastructures; Know-how supply by the general staff of the army to the city authorities. The Defence Minister's proposal, however, met little enthusiasm in the public and was finally dropped.

Fortunately, nobody has yet dared to suggest that the labour authorities resort to the army for checking in door-knocking operations, whether unemployed people are sleeping too long.

The mere idea of resorting to a militia-army of conscripts, as is the Swiss army, to tackle social problems of this type is so absurd, that it is difficult to say whether all these proposals were actually meant seriously or not. Be it as it may, on the political level, they did not remain without effect. Undoubtedly, the mere reference to the army strongly contributed to the rise of a collective feeling of a "threat against the nation", as if the country was in war.

It is disquieting to see the extent to which public authorities have adopted stands that were initially taken by the extreme right only. Thus, some years ago, the then chief of the Federal Office for Foreigners publicly deplored the fact that "the Swiss territory is already over-populated" and contended that "the arrival of the Tamils is a plot by Moscow to destabilise Switzerland".

In a country that gives credit to fears of an invasion of foreigners and considers drug addicts as a prime public threat, it is maybe not so very astonishing that the commanders of the army point out these marginalised categories of people as the new enemy justifying the continuing need for an army after the fall of the Berlin wall and the Soviet Union.


Towards "democrature"

For several years, Switzerland has been facing a profound economic, social and political crisis. This crisis affects the citizens through the deregulation of work conditions, as well as statutes and contracts, through the fall of salaries, the calling into question of social insurance schemes, and growing unemployment.

More and more people are rejected. Those to whom a social status or even the means of existence are denied, when they are no longer able to compete on the market; those who can no longer find a job or earn to little to make a living; those who are not efficient enough in terms of market competition; the retired, the handicapped, the sick or otherwise in need of assistance, the victims of solitude. As we have seen, we are excluding from our country the asylum seekers and immigrants by way of deportations and expulsions, but we are also creating veritable ghettos of poverty, neglect and marginalisation. In other words, the emergency policies in the domains of asylum are connected with strategies of exclusion extended to the society as a whole.

Government needs to control and quell the excluded and the marginalised. It also needs to arouse anguish, the fear of disorder, in order to appear as the great supplier of security. And, lastly, it needs to bring discredit on the legitimate demands of people. As soon as the latter claim some rights whose symbolic, political or economic cost is viewed as excessive, they are suspected of abuse and fraud. Then, one resorts to the following method: dramatisation of a situation, largely created and spread by mass media that are always homing in on sensational news; maintaining public ignorance of the fundamental mechanisms that govern the development of societal phenomena; and, finally, adoption of a spate of repressive measures.

Thus, the question is whether we are not slipping towards a new system of government that could be described as "democrature" - a term used by political activists in Uruguay to describe the situation in that country after the end of military dictatorship.

Christophe Tafelmacher


This is our abridged and edited translation of: Assignation, armée, arrêtés fédéraux urgents: émérgence d'un Etat social autoritaire; Contact: Ch. Tafelmacher, Fraisse 4, CH-1006 Lausanne; Tel: +41/21 6160705.