Many of the 60,000 Ukrainian refugees arriving in Switzerland found accommodation in Swiss homes. Now more and more are seeking independent accommodation and are facing the same challenges faced by others arriving in Switzerland: vacant homes are rare and very expensive.
In a typical year net migration into Switzerland is around 50,000. The number of Ukrainian refugees arriving this year could more double this figure. In addition, home vacancy rates in crowded cantons like Geneva are around 0.5%. Across the country, 1.5% of homes were vacant in 2021.
Many Swiss are also impacted by the scarcity and high cost of accommodation in Switzerland. The nation has one of the lowest rates of home ownership in the world (37.2% in 2020) and a significant number of Swiss retire abroad because of the high cost of living in their home country. Popular destinations are France, Germany, Spain and Thailand. Many Swiss also choose to live across the border and commute to Switzerland to make ends meet.
Given this backdrop and the many refugees arriving in Switzerland from other parts of the world it is not surprising that Ukrainian refugees are finding it difficult to find a place to live when they leave the Swiss homes that welcomed them. Estimates suggest that since the beginning of summer around 10% of Ukrainians have left their host families every month in search independent accommodation.
A mother with a son from Ukraine in Geneva recently told RTS how she had visited apartments only to find 15 to 20 people viewing them. Letting agencies demanded salary slips for the last three months and deposits of more than CHF 3,000, but I have no salary, only aid money, said the mother.
Refugees are sometimes rejected by letting agencies because of their weak financial situations. Agencies remind refugees that they are only intermediaries. Landlords make the final decision on who to rent to and they prefer those most likely to be able to pay rent.
Government subsidised housing if difficult to come by too. In Geneva, subsidised accommodation is only accessible to those who have lived four years in the canton, so recent arrivals don’t qualify.
Those who cannot find accommodation in Geneva are being housed in the Palexpo convention centre. The canton is also looking to renovate commercial space to create places where people can meet.
The way refugees are allocated to cantons adds another layer of complexity to the challenges of finding accommodation. Refugees are sent to a particular canton based on a formula and must stay there. This disadvantages those that land in regions like Basel, Zurich and Lake Geneva that have tight property markets and scarce home vacancies.
Switzerland may look like an attractive destination for someone escaping war and persecution. But its high prices, scarce accommodation and heavy administration present an uphill battle to many long time residents. Some refugees must find the same challenges overwhelming.