Switzerland is endeavouring to tackle the causes of displacement

Article, 29.11.2016

Didier Burkhalter will be speaking at a panel discussion entitled ‘Displacement – the global challenge of the 21st century’, which is being held at the University of Zurich in connection with the ‘DISPLACED’ exhibition at the National Museum Zurich. In this interview he talks about Swiss foreign policy in the area of migration.

Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter during his visit to the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan in 2015.
Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter is calling for Switzerland to maintain its commitment to refugees. This photo shows him at the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan. © FDFA

You are appearing at an event being held as part of the ‘DISPLACED’ exhibition. What aspects of this issue can such an exhibition convey to visitors?

The exhibition gives people a sense of what it means to be displaced. We are certainly aware of the statistics – currently there are 65 million people who have been forced to flee, displacement on a scale not seen since the Second World War.

Figures are nevertheless abstract. Can we really imagine what it is like for men, women and children to fear for their lives and not know what to do next? The ‘DISPLACED’ exhibition can raise awareness and give the public an insight into Switzerland’s longstanding efforts on behalf of displaced people.

You visited the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan in October 2015. What impact did that visit have on you?

I spoke with lots of young people at that refugee camp. Such encounters, where people recounted their experiences of war and expressed their hopes and needs, remain in my heart, especially those with young families forced to flee. Such meetings in Azraq, but also in Lebanon and Tunisia, reinforce my belief that the causes of displacement must be tackled directly as this is the only way of finding a lasting solution to the refugee crisis.

Switzerland is therefore supporting projects in many countries which aim, for example, to improve education, create jobs, ensure better provision of water and healthcare and renovate schools. This approach creates prospects, trust and hope.

In your view, which measures are urgently required to tackle the migration crisis? Where do the international community and Switzerland need to step up their efforts?

Prevention is a key factor. Engaging in efforts at an early stage to enable people to resolve unsettled issues together means fewer conflicts causing migratory pressure will arise. People fleeing require protection and support. Depending upon the situation, this may be provided in the form of specific emergency aid or, for example, by preventing refugees from being used as human shields.

The third priority concerns the countries and their courageous people who take in refugees. Their position must be strengthened to allow them to cope with the additional burden without causing fresh problems. Since the start of the conflict in Syria, Switzerland has therefore contributed over CHF 250 million for the Syrian people themselves, but also people in neighbouring countries who together have taken in more than four million people.

How is displacement incorporated into Swiss peace policy?

Through the Federal Constitution and the Swiss values of responsibility and solidarity, which we also implement in our foreign policy. The Constitution provides for assistance in alleviating need and poverty in the world and the promotion of respect for human rights and democracy. These aspects apply directly to displaced persons and therefore also to our engagement.

What role can Switzerland play in actively contributing to the reduction of migratory pressure?

The key thing is not reducing Switzerland's commitment but instead adapting it to requirements. The situation for people in Syria, for example, remains catastrophic. Switzerland is therefore stepping up its support in the region. It's increasing humanitarian aid and its activities to strengthen resilience for 2017 from CHF 50 million to CHF 66 million. Switzerland is also looking at the option of opening a humanitarian office in Damascus to strengthen negotiations, for example, on access for and the safety of humanitarian workers.

Switzerland will also expand its activities in Jordan and Lebanon and the Federal Council is assessing the resumption of development cooperation in Eritrea to launch pilot projects there for jobs and vocational training.

However, cooperation at international level is also required in addition to such direct action in the field. The refugee and migration crises can only be overcome if countries develop solutions together. For example, in the Syrian conflict Switzerland is supporting the UN Special Envoy by providing expertise. And in cooperation with Mexico, it is facilitating the negotiation process for a UN framework that will bridge existing gaps in the field of migration.

Every person who can be helped through such efforts represents a success and provides Switzerland with an incentive to show further commitment to those being displaced. 

«Es geht um die Welt und die Menschen»: Beiträge der Schweizer Aussenpolitik zur Bewältigung der Flüchtlingskrise, speech by Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter, 29 November 2016 (de)