Controversial refugee policy

Refugee policy during the Second World War is one of the best-processed chapters of contemporary Swiss history. It is still controversial to this day. The field of tension surrounding xenophobia, anti-Semitism and humanitarian tradition is the source of many a heated discussion. Switzerland did not take in civilian refugees alone. More than 100,000 military refugees were also interned.

Civilian refugees

Around 10,000 people (so-called "emigrants") came to Switzerland prior to the outbreak of war; they were followed by approximately 51,000 during the war itself. The Federal Police Division (1841-1991) was responsible for civilian refugees. Their documents on individuals and families are filed primarily under personal files series N for settlement, periods of residence, refugees (1904-1952).

The Federal Police Division delegated the task of housing and caring for civilian refugees to the Federal Central Administration of Homes and Camps (ZL) and a number of charitable organisations. They included, among others, the Swiss Red Cross (1863-1994) and the Swiss Charity for Children of Emigrants (1860-1986). Person-related files of the Federal Central Administration of Homes and Camps can be found in personal files series N of the Federal Police Division. The Archives of Contemporary History have secured a number of bequeathed exhibits within the scope of its contemporary witness programme.

The following inventories are available for detailed research at federal and cantonal level:

The Swiss parliament appointed the Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland – Second World War (ICE) in December 1996 to investigate, among other issues, Switzerland's refugee policy during the war.

A large proportion of the documents needed by the ICE and the documents it created as a result can be found in the Swiss Federal Archives.

Military internees

According to the Hague Convention with respect to the Laws and Customs of War on Land of 1907, neutral states were obligated to disarm and intern troops who crossed the border to prevent their continued participation in the war. Swiss citizens remember in particular the internment of Polish and French soldiers in June 1940: 29,000 French and 12,000 Polish troops of the 45th French Army Corps had been driven into a corner near the border to the Bernese Jura. The German and allied pilots who were forced to land or who crashed in Switzerland are also of importance in this regard. All in all, Switzerland accommodated around 104,000 military refugees who were employed mainly in agriculture, forest clearance and road construction. The road over the Susten Pass is an example of their work.

The Federal Commission for Internment and Hospitalisation FCIH (1938-1950) was responsible for housing and supervising military personnel. Its register and numerous files are held by the Swiss Federal Archives. Further related documents can be found in the National Defence fonds (1600-1960), in particular on deserters and disobedients and on camps and interned pilots.

Last modification 04.11.2019

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