Waiting for the Barbarians: Switzerland goes Apartheid

“No, no, no, you don’t want to see that one... that one will cost too much; you will not be able to afford that.” So said a clerk at an upmarket Zurich boutique, to a shocked African-American woman looking to purchase a Tom Ford handbag.

She might as well have been a housekeeper. Much to the salesperson’s chagrin, the customer was in fact a billionaire by the name of Oprah Winfrey. Whoops. The story, of course, went viral, not only humiliating the store’s proprietors, but the Swiss government, as well.

The news also coincided with the first widely circulated reports of Switzerland passing ‘apartheid-style’ laws, placing restrictions on the freedom of movement of asylum seekers.

Hailing from countries such as Eritrea, Tibet and Sudan, 150 refugees housed at a former military barracks in the city of Bremgarten had been restricted from 32 areas, including school playgrounds, swimming pools, daycare centres and even retirement homes.

Although government representatives insisted that only select areas were part of this ‘exclusion zone’, the language they used to defend their new policy was telling.

“For security reasons, we decided to make these areas inaccessible in order to avert potential conflict and primarily to prevent the consumption of drugs,” says Raymond Tellenbach, the mayor of Bremgarten. “We are not inhuman,” the official told German news weekly Der Spiegel.

“The point,” says [Federal Bureau of Migration] head Mario Gattiker, is to prevent “50 asylum seekers visiting a football pitch or a swimming pool all at once,” which apparently would lead to “friction and resentment.” The rules are designed “to accommodate public concern,” he added.


It’s the deference to “public concern” that’s the problem. If Swiss anxieties include the ascribing of criminal behaviour to foreigners, the government’s job is to jail them, not to naturalise them, or encourage their integration.

That’s the logic such a stance entails. Asylum seekers are not in Switzerland to seek refuge, but to break its laws. It’s a very reactionary message that’s being sent. But it is one that dovetails neatly with the sorts of stereotypes which plague migrants throughout Europe.

The fact that the Swiss indulge them, in similar ways to their neighbours, in France as well as Austria, for example, simply makes it easier to identify – as much as it serves as a cause for worry.

Take note of the drug consumption concern. Are foreigners inherently more predisposed to consuming or dealing in illicit, mind-altering substances?

The fears being projected onto them – of being exposed to cultures and identities that may cause us to lose control – are typical. The language of invasion, of being polluted, is crucial to this fantasy. Hence, the fear of association (in athletic contexts) alluded to in the second quotation.

The examples given could not be more descriptive of the sorts of anxieties that fuel racism. They’re textbook, in terms of the settings invoked, as places where such dramas often get played out.

The Der Spiegel article is careful to note that this is not the first time Switzerland has imposed such restrictions on refugee movement. In 2012, foreshadowing the Bremgarten decision, refugees in Eigenthal were prohibited from going to public swimming pools unless they were accompanied. And it gets worse.

As of the time of the publication of the Der Spiegel article (8 August, 2013) officials in the village of Alpnach (population 6,000) had apparently drawn up rules preventing asylum seekers from venturing in the forest.

Frightening precedent

Again, simply from the choice of places being discussed, as “zones of exclusion,” one can infer more about the psychology of the Swiss, and their fears of outsiders, than anything about refugees, or their ostensibly criminal pathologies.

It’s an extremely narcissistic gesture, really, as such rule-making is more about reassurance than it is constructively grappling with the fact, not just the presence, of ‘others’. For advocates of cultural and racial equality, such regulations obviously set a frightening precedent.

If the Swiss government is willing to prohibit the movement of asylum seekers this way, how might it seek to similarly regulate the movement of immigrants with residence status or domestic minorities?

Given the ethnic and religious backgrounds of the asylum seekers mentioned, there are plenty of reasons for worry. Particularly given the level of campaigning within Switzerland, by rightists, against Muslims, in recent years.

Take the Swiss government’s 2009 banning of new minaret construction in the country. Acceding to the results of a referendum initiated by the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SPV), intended to counter the growth of Sharia law,  57 per cent of voters voted (against government wishes, according to the BBC ) in favour of the ban.

From now on, mosques must be functionally invisible, deprived of their primary physical marker. It’s not a far jump to preventing migrants from accessing public spaces.

The point, similarly, is to make them, like Islam, hidden. If one cannot see Muslim houses of worship, you don’t think about the religion much either, for many of the same reasons we might object to headscarves. The same goes for prohibiting refugees from using public pools. Both gestures involve separation, if not culturally, then physically.

Hence the impulse to deny a black woman the right to a designer handbag. Even if she couldn’t have afforded it, preventing Oprah from even considering buying one was tantamount to telling her access to affluence, to the upper caste, is restricted to white Europeans. It’s no different to regulating what parts of town migrants are allowed in, and disguising Muslim devotional spaces.

The logic is that consistent – and binding.

Certainly, one could argue that the Swiss are expressing the fears of a country which, like the rest of Europe, will be forced to eventually reconcile itself to mass immigration. That inevitability may very well be upon it. However, managing it is a different story.

If there is no spirit or ethos of equality guiding the law, or informing public policy, diversity will just be another way of describing hierarchy. It’s called Apartheid.