Order versus Education: The Aims of the Swiss Labor Camps for Refugees and Emigrants
Since World War I, Switzerland practiced a defensive policy against foreign immigration to prevent so-called Überfremdung (“foreignization”). Jews were the main group at which this policy was directed. Immigration and naturalisation of Jews mainly from Eastern Europe, was strictly limited in most Swiss cantons during the 1920s and early 1930s. Based on this, Swiss authorities developed a restrictive refugee policy when confronted with a massive influx of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in 1933 and again from 1938 on. Nevertheless from 1938 to 1945 around 22,500 Jews were allowed into Switzerland – many of them only with great difficulty. An unknown number of Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution was turned back at the border. Those who found refuge in Switzerland found themselves being interned from 1940 on, when a system of labor camps for men and of so called “homes” for women, children and the elderly was established. At its peak the system comprised more than a hundred camps and homes, with 35,000 inmates, roughly 70% of them Jewish. While living conditions in the civilian-run system seem to have been fairly tolerable (as opposed to conditions in the parallel system of reception and quarantine camps under military jurisdiction) they served as a tool to control and to re-educate the refugees. The overriding aim was “onward migration” as required by a 1931 law. As a result of internment, often prolonged for several years, the refugees’ integration into the Swiss labor market and Swiss society was thwarted and successfully blocked. The camp system was officially abolished only in 1950. By 1953, all but 1,600 of the refugees had been compelled to leave Switzerland.