Assault sparks disquiet at Geneva insecurity

The crime scene at Pont de l'Ile Genève Tourisme

A vicious assault on the son of a United Nations diplomat in the centre of Geneva last month has caused alarm over safety in the western Swiss city.

This content was published on August 16, 2011
Simon Bradley in Geneva,

The Swiss foreign ministry on Monday said it was "concerned" by the “deterioration of the security situation in recent months”. This follows a warning by the UN to its staff about going out alone in the city at night.

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, who is also the acting Swiss president, has written to Isabel Rochat, head of security and police in Geneva, to voice her concern and a meeting is planned with the Geneva authorities on September 12.

The ministry said the presence of international organisations in Geneva was a "pillar" of Switzerland's foreign policy, and that the safety of the city was a top priority for the UN and diplomatic missions.

The police say no one has been arrested so far in connection with the assault, which took place in the centre of Geneva at 4am on July 16, but which has only now gained wider attention.

The victim - who was identified only as the son of an American UN diplomat – was allegedly attacked as he crossed the Pont de l’Ile by up to a dozen assailants who beat him with metal rods and attempted to throw him into the river Rhone before a passing cyclist raised the alarm.

He reportedly suffered small fractures to his back, as well as cuts and bruises, and was recovering but said to be extremely shocked by the incident.

The UN, which has its European headquarters in Geneva, sent a series of emails to staff including a note warning that "one should not, repeat not, be out alone late at night in the city centre".

A later toned-down memo urged diplomats to "exercise caution and prudence when out in the evening or early morning hours in downtown Geneva".

“Fortunately we don’t have many cases like this one in the centre of town,” Geneva police spokesman Jean-Philippe Brandt told “But the spot is close to nightclubs so fights and assaults can occur at the end of the night.”

Better or worse?

Rochat told Swiss national radio on Tuesday that she welcomed Calmy-Rey’s letter as a gesture of collaboration between Geneva and the federal authorities over security matters.

Geneva is regularly ranked in the top ten of quality-of-living listings but continues to hold the top spot as the Swiss city with the highest number of crimes per inhabitant – 179.5 per thousand.

Rochat says the situation is “difficult” in Geneva but not worse than other European cities. She defended her record on Tuesday saying there had been a decline last year in the overall number of offences committed in Geneva by three per cent to 61,910 compared with 2009, as well as those for actual bodily harm (-16 per cent) and grievous bodily harm (-7 per cent).

“But we shouldn’t kid ourselves; any aggression is one too many,” she added.

Her remarks contrasted with those of Brandt, who said there had been an increase in the number of assaults since January after an improvement in 2010.

Complaints for assault had exploded, he told the Tribune de Genève newspaper: 46 in January versus 23 in 2010, 42 in February compared with 25 and 58 in March versus 31.

What’s going on?

The police spokesman said he was at odds to explain the rise, while hinting it may be linked to changes to the Swiss Penal Code since January 1 that have reduced the numbers held in preventive custody.

A local businessman who has been directly involved in the on-going problems pointed the finger at a group of 200-plus hardcore petty criminals from North Africa, who he said had continued to prey on tourists and passers-by over the past five years.

Speaking anonymously, he told “The same group of small predators is still active; they are arrested and released and still here; they have fine-tuned their methods and know that nothing can happen to them.”

“The police are more present but it’s a political problem. We have to practise targeted administrative detention,” he added.

This is the legal option of imprisoning asylum seekers who are repeat offenders for up to 24 months while preparing their return home. Other cantons follow the procedure, but the option is not used very often in Geneva.

Rochat said she had been ringing the alarm bell for some time over the failure to conclude asylum readmission accords with certain countries that would “help resolve the cases of some delinquents who had settled in Switzerland”.

Olivier Jornot, a local Radical Party politician, said many people walked around Geneva safely at night but the worsening situation could not be ignored. He claimed that half of all assaults were committed by people who passed briefly through the city, which has a 103km border with France, and therefore urged for border controls to be beefed up.

Rochat told listeners that she would be asking Bern to help fund additional police officers, and from autumn “emergency police” units would be operational alongside foot patrols in the city.


Last October the Geneva authorities published a survey showing that around 33 per cent of the 1,082 people questioned at diplomatic missions, international organisations and multinationals in Geneva felt there had been a “substantial deterioration” in security in recent years, while 45 per cent said it had “worsened slightly”.

It also found one in ten had been victims of burglary or street crime in the past three years.

Yet Geneva was still ranked as the third most livable city in the world in 2011, according to Mercer's quality of living survey.

And in the Geneva poll 92 per cent of people said they would recommend Geneva to their family and friends, with  77.3 per cent saying the quality of life was good. Only 18.7 per cent said it was “average” and four per cent “bad”.

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Comments on insecurity on expat forum

“Geneva isn’t as safe as people say it is, and it’s worth taking precautions. There is knife crime here, gun crime and general beatings/robbings and so forth. It’s not so widespread as maybe areas of London or NY or Washington... but for the village sized place in which we live.... it’s enough.”

“Come on people, let's not overreact here…I bet if we saw the facts, facts=the crime stats, that they would show Geneva to be a very safe city vis-a-vis most other cities in Europe.  Maybe bordering on sleepy safe, that's not to say that there isn't petty crime.”

“Geneva may not be as bad as 'other' cities but what is the population of those cities? For a city of this (small-ish) size I find the amount of crime that is reported (and of course we never hear about the crime that goes unreported) appalling. And I agree that the police don't seem to be doing anything.”

“As a Swiss guy, I feel sometimes safer in African or Latin American public places (where there always is security presence) than in Geneva. The situation has gotten really bad in Geneva in the last years, even though ‘statistics’ might say the opposite.”

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