One of Europe’s richest towns votes to pay $280k fine to avoid accepting 10 refugees

Set in the scenic canton of Aargau in Switzerland’s north lies the small village of Oberwil-Lieli, population 2,200. This is one of Europe’s wealthiest towns – over 300 locals are millionaires. The town has recently made headlines for a decision concerning the refugee crisis spreading across Europe.

Rather than agree to taking in their quota of 10 refugees – which was set by the Swiss federal authorities – the residents of Oberwil-Lieli voted to instead pay a fine of CHF290,000 (US$280,000) to avoid having to accept them. The town’s mayor, right-wing politician Andreas Glarner, was unapologetic when discussing the decision with media.

On a live TV interview, Glarner was asked by a journalist what he would advise a mother with two small children seeking refuge in Europe. He didn’t hold back, saying:

“They should turn back. Because they are potential welfare recipients and they will be sponging off us forever and ever.”

The issue of accepting the quota of 10 refugees into the village was put to a vote of residents – 52% of locals voted in favor of paying the federal government a fine for not accepting them. The government has a plan to distribute 50,000 refugees throughout Switzerland, and Oberwil-Lieli is the only municipality so far to rebel against their quota.

A Swiss newspaper interviewed one local, who declined to be named, who explained the town’s decision. “We do not want them here, it’s as simple as that. We have worked hard all our lives and have a lovely village that we do not want it spoiled. We are not suited to take in refugees. They would not fit in here.”

Mayor Glarner denied that the town’s decision was driven by racism. “We were not to be told if the 10 were from Syria or if they are economic migrants from other countries,” he told journalists. “Yes, the refugees from Syria have to be helped and they are better served by being helped in the camps nearer their home.”

“Money could be sent to help them, but if we are housing them here it sends out the wrong message. Others will come and risk their lives crossing the ocean and paying people smugglers to bring them. They are not likely to be able to speak the language and if some of the refugees have children they will have to go into the local school where they will need special focus.”

Not all the residents of Oberwil-Lieli were in favor of the decision – 48% voted to accept the refugees. In a town assembly held late last year, a group of around 50 protesters made their case in support of accepting the quota of 10 refugees. That meeting went late into the night, but it failed to convince a majority of locals to vote in favor of the refugee plan.

A spokesperson for the group in favor of accepting the refugees, Johanna Gündel, told journalists that they had received messages of support from across Switzerland. “Some [letters] even came from the United States and France,” she said.

Despite the closeness of the vote, Mayor Glarner does not believe the issue has divided his village. “This is not the case at all. Like any other village in Switzerland, we have people with different political opinions. Normally this is no big deal because it is not so visible.”

“I’m clearly in favour of setting an example and of refusing asylum seekers,” he said. “Taking them in is merely fighting symptoms. Every commune that accepts asylum seekers raises false hopes and encourages more people to come here.”