In Switzerland, basic welfare payments are only paid once an individual has spent almost all of their wealth supporting themselves. These requirements apply to everyone but are typically irrelevant for most refugees, who arrive in Switzerland with next to nothing. However, many arriving from Ukraine, a lower-middle income country, have wealth exceeding the limit, most visibly displayed in the vehicles some drive. Luxury cars in particular have raised eyebrows, although it cannot be assumed that the owners of these cars are receiving welfare.
Until now, the standard wealth rules relating to welfare payments have not been applied to Ukrainians. However, as the war has continued and the likelihood of Ukrainians settling in Switzerland has risen, calls for them to be subjected to the same rules as the locals has risen.
The Swiss Social Welfare Association has responded to these calls with a recommendation that the standard rules be applied to Ukrainian refugees. Cantons have since sent letters to those concerned asking them to declare their wealth. This has put some Ukrainians in a difficult position. For example, in the cantons of Vaud and Geneva, the welfare wealth limit is CHF 4,000 per adult and CHF 2,000 per child – these limits vary by canton. This means a single mother of one in Vaud or Geneva would need to have no more than CHF 6,000 wealth to qualify for welfare. Anyone with worldwide assets exceeding this sum would need to support themselves. This means even owning a modest car could bring an end to welfare support.
An RTS report describes a Ukrainian mother with a 12 year old daughter in Vaud in exactly this situation. She has a vehicle with an estimated value of CHF 9,000, CHF 3,000 over the CHF 6,000 welfare wealth limit. According to the rules, she would need to sell the vehicle and use any excess money beyond CHF 6,000 supporting herself before she qualifies for further welfare. But this is a problem. She needs her car to work as a mobile masseuse. Without the car she cannot transport the table she needs to do her work. The car also has sentimental value. Without it she would not have been able to flee her home occupied by Russian forces. The woman told RTS she hopes the canton will make an exception so she can continue to work, better integrate and have a way to return to Ukraine where her husband is.
The Swiss Social Welfare Association says that the authorities have made an exception for Ukrainians that has lasted around a year. In mid-February 2023 it sent a new recommendation to apply the standard rules to those responsible for social welfare. Erich Dürst, the head of EVAM, an organisation that helps refugees in Vaud, told RTS that while he understands the feelings of Ukrainian refugees, he still supports the move. There is a responsibility to Swiss society and taxpayers to ensure that welfare is given fairly and that someone who owns an expensive vehicle does not receive it.
However, not everyone agrees with the move. Caritas Switzerland, an organisation that fights against poverty, thinks it is unjustified. Andreas Lustenberger from Caritas told RTS that he thinks it’s unfair to apply the same rules to refugees when they receive less welfare than local residents. In some cantons, refugees receive as much as 50% less. And taking away their cars will create new problems, he said. It will make it harder for them to return home and find work.
In 2021, Switzerland provided CHF 8.8 billion of welfare to 805,000 people, roughly 9% of the population.
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