Marina Gold

My research project has been looking at the refugee crisis from two distinct perspectives:

1) the relationship between human rights discourse (as an egalitarian ideal) and the refugee crisis

2) the managing structures of refugees

Initial fieldwork has been carried out in Switzerland, given the high numbers of international NGOs that articulate human rights discourse, and the increasing numbers of refugees arriving from Italy and Austria. Switzerland has received 479 asylum applications per 100,000 inhabitants, which is above the European average of 260 applications per 100,000 inhabitants. Furthermore, 24.6% of Switzerland’s population is composed of foreigners. The other particularity of Switzerland is its highly democratic system of government, where people are involved in direct decisions affecting the country’s national and international policies. This was the case with one of the last referendums which voted to establish a quota on European citizens working in Switzerland, which has placed enormous stress on the Swiss government’s negotiations with the EU.



Dr Marina Gold

This project wishes to interrogate the impact of the growing fascist passions in Europe on democratic structures. In this analysis the role of human rights is crucial, as they represent the system of values on which European democratic structures are built. And it is this language of human rights and ‘essential European values’ that is being wielded to mobilize emerging support for right wing governments. Therefore, the link between the crisis of refugees, the crisis of the European Union and the crisis of the humanitarian regime is fundamental to understanding the state of affairs today.


Notes from the field

During the past 10 months, since my first involvement with the ‘Egalitarianism’ Project, I have produced a state of the art survey of the literature concerning human rights critiques, which I have shared with the team at a workshop in Ascona (March 2016), and I have presented a seminar paper at the University of Zurich at the request of undergraduate and post-graduate students interested in the issues surrounding refugees (December 2015).

By November 2015 I established contacts at different NGOs in Switzerland and conducted interviews with members of MSF, Red Cross Zurich, UNHCR and WHO, and I also started visiting a short-term processing centre for refugees in Zurich. This preliminary ethnographic survey has provided me with an initial insight into how Swiss political structures articulate between the local (and highly democratic) level, and the federal level. Conversely, two popular initiatives voted in the last year reveal the impacts of a direct democracy on national and international structures of government.

1) The first one was voted on the 28th February 2016, proposed by the Swiss People’s Party (Schweizerische Volkspartei), and aimed to pass an “enforcement” (Durchsetzungsinitiativ) initiative that would legalize the “rigorous expulsion” of foreigners who committed two offenses within a 10-year period without a trial or appeal, applying both to grave crimes like murder and rape as well as lesser infractions like arguing with a police officer. The voters (with a turnout of 63.73%) voted yes (41.1%) and no (58.9%), fortunately rejecting the initiative. Had this initiative won, it would have contravened more than one human rights convention, to which Switzerland is signatory. This was not the first time the Swiss were called to vote on this matter. In 2010 a similar “deportation” initiative was voted favourably by 52.9% of the voters in order to limit immigrant rights.


pastedgraphic-2Poster by a member of the SVP using the case of Germany, and its refugee policy as a statement against which to position the SVP’s policies: “No asylum chaos a la Germany!”



Poster by the Swiss party SVP to rally in favour of deportation of foreigners in February 2016: “Finally create safety”

2) The second initiative, voted on the 5th of June 2016, backed an amendment to reform asylum procedures by 66.8% in a turnout of 46%. The proposal established the asylum processing time to 140 days, including time for appeals, compared to the 400 days it used to take. The aim was to make the asylum process faster and fairer, but there are risks that speed will imply hastier decisions are being made. The vote in favour of the initiative has not been seen so much as a progressive move in support of refugees, but rather a statement in favour of not having people in a status of limbo for too long in Switzerland, thus reducing the budget spent on refugee centres.

An older initiative against mass immigration (“Gegen Masseneinwanderung”) voted in February 2014, approved the introduction of immigration quotas, which had exited in Switzerland prior to 2002, when a bilateral agreement was signed between Switzerland and the EU to facilitate the free movement of people. Once again, this was an initiative launched by the SVP, and it was accepted barely by 50.3% majority. This difference of 19,526 voters is now costing Switzerland a complex process of negotiation, and it is still not possible to estimate how much money it will cost the Swiss economy once the EU determines the sanctions for limiting EU citizens’ movement within Switzerland. Some obvious signs are being perceived at university funding levels, as Swiss educational institutions are limited in the types of funding they can access.

These observations will come together more coherently in a forthcoming paper on the relationship between democratic structures in Switzerland and migration.


Links to other work:

1) Blog on Cuba: Focaalblog

2) Link to book: People and the State; Ideas and Practices of Revolution in Socialist Cuba  

3) Link to book where I contributed a chapter: Anthropology of Value