City Balances Old Ways, Tough New Realities Widespread Drug Scourge Viewed Side by Side with Zurich's Marvelous Wealth and Order Yields a Sharp Contrast

By Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 18, 1993 | Go to article overview

City Balances Old Ways, Tough New Realities Widespread Drug Scourge Viewed Side by Side with Zurich's Marvelous Wealth and Order Yields a Sharp Contrast


Laurent Belsie, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


SOME 150 years ago the people of Zurich tore down the city's medieval walls, opened up foreign trade, and quickly established the city as one of the leading financial centers of Europe. Today, it is having second thoughts about openness.

The city that welcomed political refugees like Lenin and critics of the Nazi regime now feels overwhelmed by foreigners. Everyone here talks about it.

"It's less the problem of the absolute numbers than it is the growth rate," says Daniel Hefti, head of economics for the Federation of Swiss Employees' Organization located here. He pulls out a chart of statistics. In 1980, foreigners made up 21 percent of Switzerland's population. Last year, it reached 27 percent.

The official numbers do not count refugees fleeing war in the former Yugoslavia or economic hardship in Eastern Europe or the Middle East. Many come to Switzerland asking for asylum.

"If we opened up our country to economic refugees, it would become a country of 10 million," exclaims Christian Kauter, secretary-general of the largest political party in Switzerland, home to 6.6 million people. And "we have more and more of these refugees who are leading the drug trade." Mr. Kauter's party has introduced a bill that would automatically eject asylum seekers who are caught in criminal activity.

The problem is especially acute in Zurich. As the capital of the most populous and one of the richest cantons in Switzerland, Zurich acts as a powerful magnet. Even though it has lost a fifth of its population since 1960, the city retains a good system of social services - so good, in fact, that the city attracts the homeless, addicts, and other problem groups.

Drugs are the biggest concern. During the 1980s, the city's Socialist-Green coalition adopted a lax policy toward drug use. Platzspitz Park, behind the Swiss National Museum, became a hangout - not only for the youth of Zurich but also for hundreds of users and dealers from outside the city. It became known as "Needle Park." When Zurich police conducted a surprise raid in June, they found that less than a fifth of the 931 people it picked up were city residents.

"At the beginning of the century, we took in 1 million people," says Jorg Eggenschwiler, head of the information office for the city government's executive department. "And Switzerland benefited a lot from them. They founded many of our companies."

Some of today's newcomers are different, he argues. "They are criminals, but under the guise of political refugees."

This is not the first time that newcomers have created problems in Zurich. Even glossy picture books about the city refer to past turbulence.

"If it were still the custom to erect monuments, Zurich might do well to dedicate one to the tutelary genius that has repeatedly sent so quiet a city such turbulent guests," says the 1979 photo album "Zurich: Metropolis on the Limmat." "Most of them were not officially invited: They came on their own initiative, often as refugees driven by hard necessity, and they continually called in question the articles of Zurich's official credo. It must be said in Zurich's favour that most of the strangers who settled here soon felt at home and that the city has served as a sanctuary for emigrants from all points of the compass. On the other hand, it would probably never have ranked with the world's great cities if it had not opened its gates again and again to uninvited guests from far and near."

IT is not clear how much longer Zurich can keep up the tradition. The influx is straining the city's social services and has hurt its image.

"In the city of Zurich, we always had problems, but they were problems for which we had the instruments," says Ralph Kuhne, secretary-general of the mayor's office. "Now we have problems that are important and we don't have the instruments and the power to handle them. …

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