Should Switzerland Refuse Protection To Ukrainian Men Of Fighting Age?

(MENAFN- Swissinfo) As Ukraine begins enforcing a new law to mobilise troops, some politicians in Switzerland say it's time to revoke temporary protection for able-bodied Ukrainian men so they can join the war effort at home. Others say the idea is pure hypocrisy and even“unworkable”.

This content was published on June 13, 2024 - 09:00 9 minutes

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Taras* and his family found refuge in Switzerland after enduring weeks of rocket attacks over their hometown, Kyiv, and fleeing Ukraine in March 2022. The 40-something entrepreneur is convinced that returning now would mean certain death for him – not in Kyiv, but as an underprepared civilian recruit on the frontlines.

Petro, another Ukrainian living in Switzerland, agrees:“If I were to go back to Ukraine today, I would be stopped by our border services and taken straight to the military enrolment centre”, he says. From there, he would be sent to training and, ultimately, to the front.

Nearly two-and-a-half years into the war, Ukraine is desperate to boost its weary and depleted forces on the battlefield against a larger and better equipped adversary. According to a high-ranking commander, Yurii Sodol, in eastern Ukraine, Russian troops outnumberExternal link Ukrainian soldiers“seven to ten times”.

To address this deficit, a new mobilisation law has come into force that lowers the conscription age from 27 to 25. But it also targets Ukrainian men aged 18-60 abroad by compelling them to prove they're registered with the military before they can receive consular services, such as renewing a passport. President Volodymyr Zelensky has also called on European countries to encourage male refugees of recruitment age to return to Ukraine.

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Reactions across the continent have varied. Poland and Lithuania sayExternal link they are ready to help repatriate these men, though without explaining how they would do this. But other statesExternal link , including Austria, Czechia, Hungary and Estonia, say they have no such plans.

In Switzerland, where some 65,000 people from Ukraine – mostly women and children – have received temporary protection, politicians are divided on the issue. Some, such as Pascal Schmid of the right-wing Swiss People's Party, are in favour of the Polish and Lithuanian approach. The parliamentarian recently tabled a questionExternal link to the government: do men who are eligible for military service in Ukraine really need Switzerland's protection?

'Someone has to drive the tanks'

Back in March 2022, Bern decided for the first time in the country's history to trigger so-called status S and grant temporary protection to people fleeing the war in Ukraine, a policy similar to that of the European Union.

Schmid says it's time to review this scheme.“Who is in need of protection? Women, children and older people are,” he says.“But conscripts are not refugees.” Fellow parliamentarian Christian Wasserfallen, of the centre-right Radical-Liberals, wantsExternal link Switzerland to sign a readmission agreement with Ukraine so it can repatriate men of fighting age and“help Ukraine with its personnel problem”.

But others strongly reject the idea.

“I find the demand hypocritical beyond all measure and incompatible with Switzerland's humanitarian tradition,” says Celine Widmer of the left-wing Social Democrats.“It comes from the very parties that refuse to support Ukraine effectively, such as with reconstruction aid.”

Centre- and right-leaning parties, which together hold the majority in parliament, criticise the temporary protection system, arguing it's expensive and rife for abuse. Parliament recently rejected a proposal to create a special fund to finance Ukraine's reconstruction. It's also opposed , on the grounds of protecting Switzerland's neutrality, the re-exportation of Swiss war materiel to Ukraine.

+ Is the Swiss weapons industry in danger of misfiring?

Schmid doubts that Switzerland is being supportive of Ukraine by giving protection to men who could be liable for military service.

“Those on the left who prefer to supply weapons [to Ukraine] also want to take in conscripts – but someone has to drive the tanks,” he argues.“It's certainly not a show of solidarity for us to be hosting conscripts.”

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Just under 12,000 Ukrainian men aged 18-60 have status S in Switzerland. The State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) says it's impossible to estimate how many of them are actually eligible for conscription, as several exemptions exist. These includeExternal link fathers of three or more children, fathers of children with a disability or severe illness, men with disabilities, and men deemed unfit for military service.

'In our hearts we have never left Ukraine'

As the father of three children, Taras was exempt from martial law introduced immediately after the Russian invasion in February 2022 to mobilise civilian men. He was allowed to leave Ukraine.

Before he left, Taras witnessed how ordinary civilians were eager to enlist and defend their country. But a rising military death toll, extended periods on the frontline, and the prospect of being sent to fight amid a lack of equipment, weapons, ammunition and adequate training have since deterred many from joining up. These men, says Taras, live in fear of mobilisation squadsExternal link that approach male citizens on the streets of Ukraine and hand out summonses.

“Being in the army takes years of training,” says Taras. One of his friends, a civilian recruit, recently died on the front in Ukraine. Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

In February, Zelensky said that 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed in fighting so far, though some observersExternal link believe the figure is much higher but is being downplayed for public morale.

As the country struggles to recruit at home, men abroad are under pressure with the new mobilisation law. Ukrainian consular services were suspended for four weeks across Europe this spring, officially so administrators could prepare the implementation of the new law.

But Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba did not hide the thinking behind the move.“A man of conscription age went abroad, showed to his state that he does not care about its survival, and then [...] wants to receive services from this state,” Kuleba wroteExternal link on social media.“It does not work this way. Our country is at war.”

Now terms such as“traitor” and“draft dodger” are being heard in Ukraine and beyond to describe the men who left.

“We are not 'evaders' – we are immigrants seeking protection,” Taras counters.“Every Ukrainian I know in Switzerland is patriotic. In our hearts we have never left Ukraine.” Defending the homeland, he believes, begins with protecting one's family.

Taras continues to pay taxes in Ukraine that help to fund the armed forces. Defending the country is the responsibility of that army, and not that of the“little people”, he argues.“What benefit am I to my country, to my children, if I die [in this war]?”

Repatriation of Ukrainian men an 'unworkable' idea

In Bern, the government responded to Schmid's question of whether Ukrainian men of military age need protection by evoking the criteria set out in its March 2022 decree on status S for Ukrainians.“Whether they have to perform military service in Ukraine is not relevant,” it said.

To exclude men liable for military service from protection, the government would have to amend the decree, says the SEM. But the government has also said it will make changes only in coordination with the EU.

Switzerland and the EU have renewed temporary protection for Ukrainians until March 2025, and in the coming months both will need to decide what happens after that. The EU is home to some 2 million Ukrainians with temporary protection. Adult men make up just a bit more than one-fifth of this group, according to EurostatExternal link .

Widmer of the Social Democrats believes that sending Ukrainian men back is simply“unworkable”. The SEM says it's currently not in a position to revoke status S for an entire group of people. Only in individual cases of a breach of the criteria, such as committing a crime, is revocation and deportation possible. Under the Asylum Act, refusing to perform military service in their home country is not grounds for terminating someone's protection status.

Even if it were to mobilise the men now living abroad, Petro says that Ukraine would still be at a numerical disadvantage against Russia, which has more economic and military resources to boot. The best solution, both he and Taras believe, is to negotiate peace and save lives.

Until then, the fate of Ukrainian men should be reframed entirely, says Taras:“They're sayingExternal link that 11,000 men in Switzerland could be drafted into the Ukrainian army.”

“How about, 'We saved 11,000 men from certain death [by giving them status S] and we saved 11,000 women from becoming widows'? That's what we should be saying.”

*A pseudonym

Edited by Virginie Mangin

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