“We are here expressing solidarity with the 10,000 political prisoners in Turkey, 700 of whom have been on hunger strike for 53 days—the point at which death is imminent,” said a man named Desim, standing on Helvetiaplatz in Zürich on a recent Saturday, casting glances at 100 or so mostly middle-aged Kurdish demonstrators gathered on the square, and at the sparse line of police, some in riot gear, loitering disinterestedly along Stauffacherstrasse.
Two days prior, on November 1, Swiss police had fired rubber bullets, injuring several people at a spontaneous demonstration that broke out—this time mostly Swiss and mostly young—to protest the sudden extradition to Germany of Kurdish activist and French-registered asylee Metin Aydin, who has been on hunger strike for the same period.
The demonstrators said the Swiss government had no grounds for extradition, as Aydin had broken no Swiss laws — the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, with which Aydin is associated, is illegal in Germany but not here. They also feared his further extradition from Germany back to Turkey, where he is likely to be tortured. And in response to their peaceful protest, they were fired on.
Police restraint is something we seem to be hearing less and less about in Switzerland, but in this case it is understandable. Immigration issues, especially those involving detentions, have become quite touchy here in recent years; calling further attention to them with a headline that involves police violence and injured Kurdish mothers wouldn't be doing the government an favors.
Instead, there is a constellation of internment centers set up to hide immigrants like Aydin from public view.
Yes, internment centers.
Relatively new, these centers are the latest in a series of anti-immigrant initiatives spearheaded by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, mirroring a development that appears to be gathering steam all over Europe. Here in Switzerland, any one of our estimated 150,000 undocumented immigrants can be picked up and taken to one of these 28 incarceration facilities at any time, and held there for months or even years while their case is processed.
Many of those interned in the camps have meanwhile established themselves in the country; they have jobs, families, and are not accused of any crime. In most cases their internment will end with deportation, seldom willingly. The Swiss system made headlines in 2010 when a Nigerian prisoner, on hunger strike, died on the tarmac at Zurich airport before departing on his “special flight” home.
All this in a country that has remained largely untouched by the global financial meltdown, where unemployment hovers perennially around 3% and people take ski trips in the Alps without much of a second thought. Yet despite the outward stability, there is fear in the air as Europe seems to be falling apart around us. (Also notable in recent days was a headline reporting the mobilization of the Swiss Army, which is running new exercises for contingencies involving economic collapse around the continent and swarms of refugees streaming in from southern Europe).
And where there is fear, there is reaction. The parallels to interwar Europe could not be clearer.
Unsurprisingly, even more chilling are recent developments in Greece. From the country arguably hardest hit by the Eurocrisis, reports have been trickling out describing extreme right-wing violence against immigrants, police indifference (and/or complicity), and yes, an archipelago of internment camps sprouting up across the country.
On October 19, Elena Panagiotidis wrote an article for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung that summed up the situation well: she described many racially-motivated attacks, including fatal ones - and by no means only in Athens - carried out by supporters of the far-right Golden Dawn party. She quoted appalled journalists as well as frustrated moderate politicians, making direct comparisons to Weimar Germany.
And as horrified as Greeks are by the recent episodes, the tide does not appear to be turning—rather the opposite. Whereas in June, Golden Dawn won a then-shocking 18 seats in the 300-member parliament, according to the latest polls they enjoy the third-highest approval rating among Greece's parliamentary parties.
The ruling coalition is not just running scared, but doing the reactionary bidding of Golden Dawn. Panagiotidis quotes Nikos Dendias, Minister of Public Order and Civil Protection, calling racially-motivated violence and unchecked immigration equal threats to social stability. If his words are ambivalent at best, his actions through policy show where his priorities lie. Although his ministry has taken no action to quell the intensifying Golden Dawn violence or weed out its supporters among police, in August it launched a new operation (cynically named Xenios Zeus, or “Zeus’s Hospitality”) to round up undocumented immigrants and imprison them in hastily-built internment camps with insufficient food and no plumbing, where they face regular harassment by guards.
In an incident in the northern city of Paranesti, where the camp consists of a converted military barracks, incensed locals tried to storm the facility less than a week after the first detainees arrived, and had to be dispersed by a special police unit called in from over 120 miles away in Thessaloniki.
The specter of fascism appears to be rising across the board, a near-universal reaction to a global economic crisis that has had widely varying consequences in different countries. Of course, anti-immigrant and racist sentiment was on the rise in the United States well before the financial crisis of 2008, but it appears to have accelerated since. Consider the “Show Me Your Papers” component of SB 1070 in Arizona that went into effect last month. Or the Stop-and-Frisk policy of the NYPD, under which more young black men were stopped by police in a year than even live in New York City. Or, most relevant to this article, the fact that under President Obama, 1.1 million people have been deported—far more in one term than were deported during the previous two.
In her sobering article, Elena Panagiotidis quoted a Greek journalist recalling a phrase by the anti-Nazi theologian Martin Niemöller:
“First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the immigrants, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t an immigrant. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”