A documentary, called The Schwarzenbach Years (Les Années Schwarzenbach), recounts Swiss disdain for foreigners in the 1970s. Clear parallels can be seen between then and now. The film will be shown at the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights in Geneva on 9 March 2016 at 14:30.
Last Sunday, close to 59% of Swiss voters rejected a plan to automatically expel foreigners convicted of certain crimes. For example convictions for threatening a police officer and getting caught up in a bar brawl less than 10 years apart would have been enough for a foreign national to get expelled had the vote passed.
46 years ago
On 7 June 1970, Swiss voted on the Schwarzenbach initiative, a plan to reduce the number of foreigners to 10% of the population in every canton except Geneva, which was to be capped at 25%. The initiative was the work of the Zurich Democratic Party, and antecedent of the Swiss People’s Party (UDC/SVP), and in particular James Schwarzenbach. Some estimated that 500,000 foreigners, mainly Italian, would have been forced to leave in the event of a “yes” vote.
75% of voters turned out and 54% of them rejected the plan. Much damage was done however. The documentary interviews foreigners in Switzerland during the vote. They talk about how the vote brought fear into their lives and made them feel second class and unwanted, and how this sense of ostracism and insecurity continued beyond the initiative’s rejection.
One, who was born in Switzerland, talks of how at five, his teacher asked who in his class was Swiss. After instinctively putting up his hand he was told in front of the class that he was not Swiss. Another talks about how her four children failed to pass into the school academic stream despite having high grades.
One interviewee found this period unbearable and moved to England where she studied. She describes how she met people from and around the world there, and how they were respected. “Absolutely the opposite of what I experienced in Switzerland.” Others talked of people who felt they were being unfairly attacked who left the country.
The film and trailer are in french. Here is a translation of most of the trailer:
When they arrived
“I was born in Switzerland in 1967. My parents are Italian. Like many other Italians from the south, my parents had to leave to find work to support our family…”
“I felt some shock when I arrived in Brig. The famous medical examination, all lined up, naked from the waist up…”
“We were made to feel that the Swiss were more civilized than Italians. That hurt. We felt humiliated.”
The political movement against foreigners
“Switzerland needed workers but at the same time feared having too many foreigners.”
“Out of a population of 6 million people, 1 million are foreign (16.7%). The initiative’s backers want a 10% cap, which would mean deporting around half.”
“We could see clearly that they were against us. They didn’t hide it.”
“I say they can all leave.”
“I no longer feel at home (here).”
“I was very friendly with all my colleagues and then all of a sudden I had doubts. I didn’t know if it was true or not. Did they like me or were they going to vote against me?”
“Did they really think about the work the foreigners were doing and who would do it if they weren’t here?”
“I cried because I didn’t want to go. I was a foreigner there, I was a foreigner here, I was a foreigner everywhere, It was dramatic.”
The lasting scars
“After, we said to each other there was still 46% who voted against us. It wasn’t the same after.”
“For most of us…it was a painful scar that we carried for years afterwards. The vote didn’t pass but neither did it bring an end the the question. In fact the number of votes on the subject have increased…”
In 1974, a second similar initiative was presented to Swiss voters. This time aimed at reducing the foreign population to 12% of the total, with Geneva capped at 25%. This one was also rejected, by 66% of voters, a greater majority than before. This helped to reduce the fear.
The film will be shown at the International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights in Geneva on 9 March 2016 at 14:30 at the Aula des Boudines in Meyrin, Geneva. Entrance is free.
A DVD of the film can be bought for CHF 30 by emailing (firstname.lastname@example.org) or calling (+41 21 311 46 87) the producer Connaisance 3.