Hungarian refugees in Buchs, 1956.
Hungarian refugees in Buchs, 1956. ETH Library Zurich

Fleeing to Switzerland

The war between Russia and Ukraine is driving people westwards. But Switzerland is an old hand at helping refugees from Eastern Europe, as a look back at the past shows.

Nada Boškovska

Nada Boškovska

Nada Boškovska is Professor of Eastern European History at the University of Zurich.

Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine has resulted in a wave of refugees from within European unlike anything the continent has seen since World War II. The vast majority of those who have fled are finding refuge in Poland. Many will stay there if they can, and hope to return to their homes soon. A small proportion of the people who have had to leave everything behind will come to Switzerland.
Ukrainian refugees arriving in Poland.
Ukrainian refugees arriving in Poland. Dukas
Switzerland has a long tradition of taking in refugees and exiles from Eastern Europe. In the 19th century, it was political emigrés from Tsarist Russia who found a home here and continued their revolutionary struggle, usually verbally, and in some cases even setting off a few bombs. Lenin and the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin are just the most recognisable names in a long list.
Lenin on the cover of Schweizer Illustrierte, December 1917.
Lenin on the cover of Schweizer Illustrierte, December 1917. Swiss National Museum
After the October Revolution of 1917, 5,000 to 6,000 Swiss-Russians left the collapsed Tsarist Empire. They lost everything they weren’t carrying with them; many had great difficulty gaining a foothold in Switzerland, and were dependent on assistance. The fate of these returnees stirred up lasting resentment in Swiss society against both Russia and Communism, while many of the newcomers mourned the happy lives they’d had in the Tsarist Empire. Often they had established successful livelihoods as cheesemakers, confectioners, winegrowers, governesses and business operators, among other things.
The Russian-Swiss Association (Russlandschweizervereinigung) sold badges to collect money for poverty-stricken returnees from the Tsarist regime, around 1920.
The Russian-Swiss Association (Russlandschweizervereinigung) sold badges to collect money for poverty-stricken returnees from the Tsarist regime, around 1920. University of Zurich
With the expansion of Soviet hegemony after World War II, anti-communism and Russophobia continued to grow in Switzerland, to such an extent that in 1962 the Swiss Ambassador in Washington expressed concern about the country’s neutrality: “I think there is a threat [to neutrality] that comes from Switzerland. There are not very many people in the USA who read Swiss newspapers. Those who do are wondering whether the distinct anti-Russian sentiment among the Swiss public might not undermine Switzerland’s role as a mediator. […] After years of watching McCarthyism slackening off in America, the Americans are sorry to see its resurgence in Switzerland.” The suppression of the Hungarian uprising by the Red Army in autumn 1956 undoubtedly contributed to this “distinct sentiment”. More than 200,000 Hungarians fled abroad, and around 13,000 were accepted with open arms in Switzerland as a “contingent”, that is, without individual asylum procedures. From the Swiss point of view, the integration of this small, mostly well-educated group with no prospect of returning home was a success.
TV documentary about the 1956 uprising in Hungary. YouTube / BBC
In August 1968, the world experienced déjà vu: troops, this time from the Warsaw Pact countries, crushed the Prague Spring. As a result, tens of thousands of Czechoslovakian citizens left the country, while others who were already abroad – on holiday in Yugoslavia, for example – didn’t go home again. Around 12,000 Czechs and Slovaks came to Switzerland, and met with the same unbureaucratic and helpful welcome as the Hungarians had before them. This new crop of well-qualified refugees was likewise quickly absorbed by the labour market, and the process is regarded as an example of good integration. For the vast majority of Swiss people, the refugees from Hungary and Czechoslovakia were the first people from socialist Eastern Europe with whom they had come into contact. Both refugee groups expressed their gratitude for their warm welcome and easy acceptance. For its part, Switzerland consolidated its self-image as a country, and a society, with a humanitarian tradition.
Hungarian refugees arriving in Morges and Bière, 1956.
Hungarian refugees arriving in Morges and Bière, 1956. Swiss National Museum / ASL
Demonstration in Bern against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1968.
Demonstration in Bern against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1968. Swiss National Museum / ASL
Switzerland experienced a much larger influx in the 1990s as a result of the Yugoslav wars of secession. Although asylum applications at the time skyrocketed to unprecedented levels, most people came not as refugees, but as part of family reunification schemes – around 173,000 Yugoslavs already lived in Switzerland in 1990. People who had left their families in Yugoslavia and come to Switzerland as Gastarbeiter (guest workers) now brought their loved ones to join them here; by 2000, the population of permanent residents from the successor states of Yugoslavia had more than doubled to 362,000. But the great waves of exodus and displacement, particularly from Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-1995) and Kosovo (1999), also meant that – in addition to individual asylum – around 25,000 refugees from Bosnia and, in 1999, 20,000 from Kosovo received a “collective provisional admission”. Except in cases of hardship, they were required to return home once hostilities ended.
Fleeing from Kosovo, 1999.
Fleeing from Kosovo, 1999. Dukas
Given the flows of refugees from Ukraine, many people are now reminded of 1956 and 1968. However, on both those occasions the events were uprisings that were rapidly put down; the armies of Hungary and Czechoslovakia were not involved. The Ukrainians are fleeing a war for which there is currently no end in sight. Able-bodied men are not allowed to leave the country, so it’s mainly women, children and older men who are fleeing. The main destination country is neighbouring Poland, where many Ukrainians already live as migrant workers. If, after the war ends, returning home is not possible or is not desirable for these refugees given the political situation, Poland would be a long-term option for many, partly because of the linguistic and cultural proximity to Ukraine, and especially since Poland can use the extra workers. Just now, it’s hard to say how many Ukrainians will come to Switzerland. This is not a primary target country, by any means; in 2020, only 7,000 people with Ukrainian citizenship lived in Switzerland. Anyone who does come here can be assured of an empathetic and supportive reception from the people of Switzerland, and comparatively uncomplicated dealings with the authorities. For the first time, the protection status “S” is being activated. This status gives the Ukrainian refugees a right of residence in Switzerland; they can join their family members and seek gainful employment, and they’ll also be entitled to social assistance and medical care. In this respect Switzerland is joining the EU, which has already brought into effect a corresponding directive on temporary protection.

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