Geneva expats worry about housing and crime

Figaro operation in the Paquis district from April Keystone

Local crime remains a major concern for expatriates in Geneva, behind finding a flat and ahead of transport hassles, a new poll has revealed.

This content was published on October 19, 2010 - 21:20
Simon Bradley in Geneva,

The Geneva police says expats’ perception of the worsening crime situation “matches the reality on the ground”. But recent police operations in the centre of town seem to be making a difference and preventive and reorganisation measures should help.

According to the survey carried out at the end of 2009 by canton Geneva and Geneva police, in collaboration with the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the United Nations, 51.8 per cent of expats say housing is their main concern, ahead of insecurity (17 per cent) and transport (14.3 per cent).

The survey presented on Monday found 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”. Most had lived in Geneva for more than two years and were from a range of different countries.

Yet Geneva remains an excellent place to live and work, the poll added, with around 92 per cent of people saying they would recommend Geneva to their family and friends and 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”.

“Geneva is relatively safe,” said Victor, an American who has lived and worked in Geneva for the past six years after stints in New York, Tokyo, London and Nairobi. “But there are notorious spots like the Paquis district [between the main station and Lake Geneva] and the Cornavin train station.”

The security situation has worsened noticeably over the past five years and you have to pay more attention to your security and surroundings, he admitted.

But Jovana Carapic, a Canadian research assistant at the Geneva-based Graduate Institute, was surprised by the poll results.

“I’ve lived here for two years and never had a single problem,” she said. “As a young woman I don’t feel unsafe anywhere. I’ve walked in the city in the middle of the night and the day and I felt the same.”

“Frankly worrying”

For Didier Froidevaux, who led the survey on behalf of the Geneva police, the expat results and concerns are similar to those of Geneva locals from a 2007 survey and match the reality on the ground.

“The crime figures have not improved recently. They were stable for two years but last year they went back up due to burglaries,” he told

In March 2010 the new Geneva councillor in charge of the police, Isabel Rochat, described the security situation in Geneva as “frankly worrying”.

Geneva has the highest crime rates in the country, mainly due to burglaries, petty crime, drug dealing and other incivilities.

Some 12.4 per cent of expats reported having been burgled during the past three years and 11.6 per cent said they had been robbed in the street.

Precious asset

Olivier Coutau, a delegate in charge of International Geneva relations, said crime and insecurity in Geneva came up from time to time in talks with foreign diplomats and other expats.

“But the fact we’ve done this poll means that we think it’s an important subject,” he noted. “International Geneva is a precious asset and we have good security that has existed for a long time; we need to preserve it.”

“What is important is what the police do with this poll,” he added.

Police, politicians and local residents have been trying to get to grips with persistent insecurity in the centre of town – especially in the popular lakeside districts of Paquis, Eaux-Vives, Rive and the station – for a number of years.

“Operation Figaro”

But it appears that “Operation Figaro”, launched in April to reduce petty crime in the city centre comprising additional police patrols, is starting to bear fruit.

Thieves and dealers may still be busy in the middle of the night when there are fewer police around, but the level of theft is down by five per cent in the centre and 12 per cent in outer-lying districts compared with 2009, the police claim.

Alain Bittar, owner of the Arab bookshop L'Olivier in the Rue de Fribourg, agreed that proximity policing seemed to have had an impact.

“Something important happened with Figaro,” he said. “From being a lawless zone or jungle, Paquis is now controlled; we have the impression that we were listened to.”

After Figaro, the police intend to keep up the pressure via a greater visible presence on the streets, Froidevaux said.

Next January a new “integrated” police station will be created in the Paquis district bringing together more officers with special skills for tracking thieves and dealers – and more English speaking officers.

And major changes are also planned next month to make investigations into burglaries more efficient, as well as preventive security initiatives with estate agents, housing agencies and owners.


French-speaking Geneva is at the western end of Lake Geneva, surrounded on almost all sides by France. The canton has 103 kilometres of borders with Switzerland's neighbour and just 4.5 kilometres with the rest of the country.

The city itself has 185,000 inhabitants, while the canton has 453,439 (2008). The metropolitan Geneva area (which includes nine other towns) covers most of the canton and spreads across into France (population 730,000).

Some 40 per cent of the Geneva population is foreign. Some 50,000 people move to or away from Geneva every year.

Geneva is home to the headquarters of 22 international organisations, such as the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"International Geneva", as it is known, is worth around SFr5 billion ($5.15 billion) a year to the canton.

In all, some 40,000 international diplomats and civil servants are based in Geneva; in addition there are around 2,400 staff working for non-governmental organisations. Around 8,500 staff work for the United Nations family in Geneva, which is the largest concentration of UN personnel in the world.

Geneva is regularly ranked in the top ten of quality-of-living listings.

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