Love-Hate Affair; Swiss Tourism Industry Relies on Immigrants; Voters and Law Nurture Long-Held Fears

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 22, 2004 | Go to article overview

Love-Hate Affair; Swiss Tourism Industry Relies on Immigrants; Voters and Law Nurture Long-Held Fears


Byline: Tom Carter, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

ZURICH - Jean-Marc Buhler, manager of the Hotel Zurcherhof, says that 55 percent of his hotel, kitchen and dining-room staff are foreigners - from the Philippines, Eastern Europe and Germany.

"Absolutely, they are good workers. I couldn't stay open without foreign workers," Mr. Buhler said.

A good waiter can make $45,000 a year, he said.

"But the Swiss won't do this work. They want to work in a bank, sit behind a desk or work on a computer."

His restaurant is a well-regarded traditional Swiss stube, catering to both locals and tourists, where world-class wines from Valais accompany the cheese fondue, raclette and other Swiss specialties.

Mr. Buhler said that in Zurich almost 30 percent of the population is foreign-born, compared with about 20 percent in the rest of Switzerland and about 12 percent in Europe as a whole and in the United States.

"The older Swiss are not feeling so well about this, but for business, it is a good feeling, not bad," he said. "They speak German. They know the system. Most have been here for a long time."Suspicion of newcomers by old-timers is to be expected in Switzerland, Europe and anywhere else. But the threat of Islamic terrorism readily turns that suspicion to fear, especially in European nations such as Switzerland, that have large Muslim immigrant populations.

That fear notwithstanding, European nations also need to keep importing workers from elsewhere because the European birthrate has dropped.

Eduard Gnesa, director of Switzerland's Office of Immigration, Integration and Emigration, said 9 percent of the Swiss economy is tourism, hotels and restaurants.

"The Swiss economy would collapse without foreign workers. In tourism, 50 percent are foreigners. Many are also in the construction business," Mr. Gnesa said in an interview in his Bern office.

"And the Swiss are only having 1.4 children per couple. That is enough reason already that we need immigration. The question is who, who in the interests of the economy and humanitarian reasons?" he asked.

Fiercely independent, Switzerland is a confederation of cantons, or states. And each canton has an enormous say over its governing.

Switzerland is not a member of the European Union and still uses the Swiss franc as its currency, even as the nations around it have converted to the euro.

The tiny mountainous nation has a population of 7.2 million, including 1.5 million foreigners. An estimated 50,000 to 300,000 are illegal.

A multicultural and diverse society by definition, Switzerland has four official languages - French, Italian, German and Romansch.

Like other European nations after World War II, Switzerland imported guest workers to build its roads, housing and an extensive tunnel system. Young men from Spain, Portugal and Italy, and later Turkey, came and worked. Many never went home.

The next wave began more than a decade ago, as tens of thousands of refugees began pouring into Switzerland from the Balkans, escaping the war and ethnic strife in the former Yugoslavia.

Today, Switzerland is the destination of thousands of Eastern Europeans looking for jobs and a better life.

"The Swiss accepted 30,000 Bosnians officially, and 60,000 unofficially, 1 percent of their total population," said Rustem Simitovic, a Bosnian academic who came to Switzerland in 1968 and is now a Swiss citizen.

"The Swiss treat those who are ready to integrate well. If you accept the Swiss way of life, you can be comfortable here," Mr. Simitovic said.

Many of Switzerland's immigrants have been there for 10, 20 or 30 years. Everything except their passport is Swiss.

For their children, Switzerland is the only place they know.

"You cannot see the difference between them and our children. They go to school and speak our [Swiss-German dialect], but it is difficult for them to become citizens," Mr. …

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