An interview with Heiner Busch, a migrants’ rights activist, who works in the secretariat of Solidarité sans Frontières (SoSF) in Berne and is engaged in the ‘Double no’ (2xNo) campaign.
Frances Webber: In the UK, the debate about the rights of foreign national prisoners is getting more heated. Why did Swiss campaigners launch the ‘Double no’ campaign?
HB: The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) came up with a ‘popular initiative’, a proposal for a constitutional amendment, to deport all foreign nationals convicted of a range of offences which feature in the debate on foreigners and crime, including benefit fraud. They should be deported, regardless of how long they had been in Switzerland or even if they were born here. Parliament agreed with the idea in principle, but said it had to respect EU free movement rights and human rights. It produced a counter-proposal imposing automatic deportation on anyone who has had sentences totalling two years or more, or the ‘daily fine’ equivalent, over a ten-year period. The parliamentary proposal, unlike the SVP one, didn’t need implementing into normal law and thus would have entered into force directly. Both proposals were to be voted on in a referendum in November 2010.
A group of migrant solidarity groups got together before the parliamentary counter-proposal, including SoSF, the Democratic Jurists, Swiss human rights groups and trades unions, to fight the SVP initiative. Then, when the counter-proposal was launched we decided to fight that too. We said that the whole thing was xenophobic, in three distinct ways. First, the ‘foreign criminal’ is manufactured by the police and the media. Police focus on foreign criminals because of media campaigns, and so there are more arrests and convictions of foreigners, and it’s a vicious circle. The only reference to foreigners in the constitution is to them as criminals.
Second, crime in Switzerland is a Swiss problem, no matter who commits it. Most foreigners in Switzerland were born here or have been here for at least ten years. Third, we do not accept different standards for Swiss and foreign nationals, and it’s also discriminatory to make non-EU citizens suffer a double punishment which EU citizens can’t suffer because of their free movement rights.
The debate is so heated here that it’s difficult to imagine getting any mainstream support. What has been the role of the trades unions and political parties vis-à-vis the campaign?
HB: I’m very proud of the involvement of trade unions, as in the past the unions have tended to underestimate the importance of migrants living in Switzerland, but in this case the unions decided to get involved, realising that in fact they are one of the biggest organisations supporting immigrants’ rights in the country.
The position of the parties was strange. The Greens were with the campaign against both proposals from the start. But the Social Democrats – they’re one of the most left-wing social democratic parties in Europe, and yet the parliamentary group of Social Democrats supported the counter-proposal because it contained a clause about integration. In fact the clause was also repressive, in my view. It talked about non-Swiss cultural and economic participation, but omitted political participation – a serious omission as we are just beginning to get voting rights for migrants at municipal and cantonal level, but only in some cantons mostly in the French-speaking part of the country. The integration clause typically omitted political rights for immigrants, but imposed duties on them to act ‘according to the laws and values of the constitution’. So it put the burden of integration on to migrants.
Could you tell us a little more about the kinds of actions the ‘double no’ campaign launched? I thought the shoes action in Berne, where the campaign group left hundreds of pairs of shoes and boots all over the city, with a yellow label on them saying ‘Deported’, was particularly striking.
HB: SoSF coordinated the 2xNo campaign, bringing together many local campaigns and initiatives. The idea of the shoes action was to remind people that when someone is deported, they always leave something behind – there is always something of the person that remains. We had cultural projects too. Films were made to explain the ideas very simply, using the analogy of unruly pupils in class – when they were naughty, only one was sent out of the class (representing the foreigner). That film was shown in cinemas and public places and was posted on YouTube. The campaign also had posters of a poison bottle with the label ‘SVP’ on it.
What impact did the campaign have?
HB: Well, unfortunately the SVP proposal was voted through (although some cantons and the majority of the cities voted against it). The counter-proposal didn’t reach 50 per cent. Now, the government is trying to put the SVP initiative into law. They will have to change the Foreigners’ Law. We don’t know what the implications will be for Swiss adherence to the Human Rights Convention and to the EU free movement agreements. We’re considering calling for a referendum to get rid of the law if it’s passed. It won’t happen quickly or without a big debate. And even if it does go through, it will have to be subject to decisions of the Strasbourg court. But already, even without a change in the law, the Federal Court has become more repressive, expelling people who have one-year sentences, lowering the threshold of ‘longer prison sentences’ to one year.
But at the same time, the 2xNo campaign has strengthened the anti-racist movement. The Social Democratic Party decided to back 2xNo at its party conference in October 2010 (a month before the vote). So the grassroots of the party voted against the parliamentary party’s position.
So to sum up?
HB: Our campaign showed that with a little time and few resources one can do a lot. It was also important to see people from the cultural world – film-makers, artists, writers – begin to engage. Political engagement of artists for migrants’ rights and fundamental rights in general was for a long time associated with Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt, who died in the beginning of the ’90s. It was very good to see that there are new artists engaging, such as the Art and Politics group, who produced the exclusion film. Young people were attracted by the campaign against the injustice of double standards. They are revolted by the differential treatment of people simply because they don’t have the right passport. So that gives us hope for new campaigns and for a continuation of our work.