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[Interview] Switzerland welcomes Ukrainian refugees with open arms

People are waiting for their suitcases in front of a conveyor belt. A screen displays "welcome everyone".

Ukrainian refugees wait for their luggage at Zurich airport after traveling from Krakow on a plane chartered by a Swiss millionaire on March 22, 2022.

Photo: AFP / Fabrice Coffrini via Getty Images

Mathiew Leiser

Despite being located at the heart of Europe, the Swiss population is particularly concerned by the Ukrainian conflict. "It is happening at the gates of Europe, so it is very close geographically", explains Katy Romy, journalist with the French section of SwissInfo.

When the invasion started, the Swiss feared that Russia would take control of Ukraine very quickly and find itself on the doorstep of not only EU member states, but also NATO countries.

It's a conflict that affects a lot the Swiss population because we never imagined that war could return to Europe. 
A quote from Katy Romy, journalist with the French section of SwissInfo

[If that were to happen], it would only take a spark to set off the tinderbox and suddenly you’ve got World War III in Europe, adds Matthew Allen, a journalist with SwissInfo's English section.

Beds ready to be used inside a bunker dormitory

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has awakened long-slumbering anxiety interest in Switzerland in concrete nuclear fallout shelters built across the country during the Cold War, with spots available for every single resident. Photo of the interior of a bunker located in the village of Evionnaz, western Switzerland, March 28, 2022.

Photo: AFP / Fabrice Coffrini via Getty Images

Besides this fear, the Swiss population has demonstrated an unprecedented show of solidarity, Romy notes.  Many Swiss people have offered to host refugees in their homes, and citizen initiatives to help displaced people arriving in Switzerland have been put in place, she says.

Bunkers for every Swiss citizen

During the Cold War, a law required every new building constructed in Switzerland to include a bunker in case of a nuclear attack. Since 1963, another law states that each inhabitant must have a reserved space in a shelter located near his or her place of residence. Since then, it is estimated that there is enough room in these shelters for the 8.6 million Swiss citizens.

This topic came back into the national news following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the fears of a nuclear war. Several media wanted to verify if each inhabitant really had an assigned place in these shelters.

In the end, the number of spots available depended on the cantons, but the vast majority say they would be able to accommodate the entire population.

Of all the stories he covered and heard, Matthew Allen was particularly struck by the one about a retired couple who did not hesitate to travel back and forth from Switzerland to the Ukrainian border to bring medical supplies and transport refugees in need.

When families were separated, this couple rushed even more to help them reunite, explains the journalist.

The couple reportedly rented a van to accommodate as many people as possible, he adds.

In Canadian terms, the distances are probably not that great, but in Switzerland, you can get from one end of the country to the other in three hours. So when you're traveling about 1,000 km, that's a lot.

Switzerland is getting ready to welcome between 60,000 and 300,000 refugees

So far, 40,000 people who have fled the war have been registered in Switzerland as refugees, the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) reported. Among them, 33,000 have been granted an S permit, a special protection status that had never been activated before, not even during the Syrian refugee crisis, notes Katy Romy.

This status, created following the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s, allows refugees to have access to accommodation, to go to school, to work and to receive social benefits for one year, subject to renewal.

Somali refugees hold up blue papers with a Swiss flag and a banner.

While Switzerland is granting S permits to Ukrainian refugees for the first time, previous refugees from Africa have not been entitled to such permits. Refugees from Somalia hold up their temporary ID cards for foreigners Switzerland category (F) during a protest on the Federal Square outside the Swiss parliament building in Bern September 6, 2011.

Photo: Reuters / Pascal Lauener

According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), some 5.4 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine because of the war.

The Swiss government said it expects more than 60,000 refugees to arrive, but the cantonal authorities in charge of managing the new arrivals expect up to 300,000 refugees to reach Switzerland by the end of the year, according to SwissInfo. This is a significant number for a country of more than 8.6 million people.

The Minister of Justice, however, told RTS that Switzerland will not impose a cap on the number of displaced Ukrainians hosted in the country.

But this large influx of people remains very complex to manage for the Swiss authorities, who do not have enough places to house them all. Of the 60,000 refugees expected, 45,000 will be housed in private households, says Matthew Allen.

While covering the refugee crisis, Allen discovered a flaw in the aid provided by the Swiss government, but also by other European nations.

Ukrainians just arrive with a suitcase and all the cash they can bring in Ukrainian currency, he explains. They are allowed to open a bank account in Switzerland with the S permit, but when they want to deposit their money in Ukrainian currency, the Swiss bank does not accept it. It is the same throughout Europe - very few countries accept their currency.

Several hryvnia notes

To limit the fall of its currency, the hryvnia, the Central Bank of Ukraine has frozen currency exchanges.

Photo: iStock / Todor Dinchev

All banks refuse to accept the hryvnia because they do not want to be stuck with this currency, whose value has been falling since the beginning of the conflict. They fear losses in the likely event that the Swiss franc rises against the hryvnia.

Under normal times, the Swiss and Ukrainian central banks would arrange a swap facility for their respective currencies, writes Matthew Allen in an article (new window). But war-ravaged Ukraine currently needs all its money to fight Russian invaders and to fund food and medicines for the population that has remained at home.

For these reasons, the National Bank of Ukraine has suspended all foreign exchange operations.

In Switzerland, as in the rest of Europe, the solution is to find an institution to guarantee the losses. The European Commission has proposed a recommendation on the conversion of hryvnia banknotes into the currency of host member states.

The scheme will allow the exchange of the equivalent of €300 for a period of three months, a quantity that critics say is not enough, reports Euronews (new window).

Austria, Hungary and Poland already have a similar scheme to the EU proposal.

In Switzerland, the government, the central bank and the Swiss Bankers Association are reportedly in talks, but no solution appears to be in sight at this time.

SwissInfo's coverage of the conflict

SwissInfo is the international branch of the Swiss public media. The website publishes daily articles about Switzerland, but also about the Ukrainian conflict, in 10 languages, including Russian.

In fact, the Russian section's audience has tripled since the beginning of the war, according to Katy Romy. The website has many hits in Ukraine, but also in Poland, where most of the refugees go.

Katy Romy stands in front of a gray background.

Katy Romy is a journalist with the French section of SwissInfo.

Photo: SwissInfo

The media is also present in Russia, where the authorities have not yet censored it.

They are particularly careful in their choice of photos and words so that they can continue to publish their articles in Russia, explains the journalist of the French section.

She adds that the four Russian-speaking journalists in the Russian section also had to step up their moderation of comments on social media by taking 24-hour shifts to deal with hateful content, which tends to increase.

RCI sincerely thanks Katy Romy and Matthew Allen for accepting this collaboration.

This article was written as part of a collaboration between Radio Canada International and Swissinfo (new window).

Note: this interview is also available in French

Mathiew Leiser