Bucking the teen curfew in Switzerland

By Imogen Foulkes
BBC News, Interlaken

Image caption, Revellers are seen here at the Tanz dich Frei party in Bern

A growing trend among Swiss towns and villages to introduce curfews for the under-16s is causing anger and frustration among the country's teenagers.

Local authorities say the curfews are necessary to prevent noise, litter, and vandalism, much of it fuelled, they claim, by underage drinking.

The resort of Interlaken became the first town to bring in a curfew, back in 2006. Today community police officer Hans Peter Buhlmann says it is a big success.

"This was where the problem was," he says, pointing to a big park in the town centre. "In summer it's beautiful, you can see the Alps, and lots of people come here, they sit down, they drink beer."

So is this a problem? It is, it seems, for Interlaken, where many residents were offended by the sight, and sound, of teenagers drinking alcohol in the park on long summer nights.

"In every town you can see teenagers and young people drinking beer and other things," explains Mr Buhlmann, "but it's not a thing we like to see here in Interlaken, that's clear."

Home at ten

In fact, drinking alcohol under the age of 16 is already illegal in Switzerland. But Interlaken decided that was not enough, and it needed an additional measure: after 22:00, under-16s are not allowed out.

"They are not allowed to visit the city, the public places, the streets, alone," says Mr Buhlmann. "They can only go out if they are with their parents."

Interlaken says it has seen a marked reduction in late-night noise and vandalism since the introduction of the curfew, and since then a number of towns have followed suit.

"It's absolutely a trend," says Felix Graf of Berne's Young Socialist Party.

"I think it's really dangerous for young people, they want to do things but then the older people come and say no that's forbidden, you mustn't do that, everywhere in Switzerland it's the same problem."

Now young people are fighting back.

The Kehrsatz rebellion

When Kehrsatz, a small commuter town close to the capital Berne became the latest community to introduce a curfew this year, local teenagers braved sub-zero temperatures to stage an after-ten-at-night party in the open air.

"I think this is just not fair," said one 15-year-old girl. "Lots of us have friends over 16 and we want to go out with them. Why should we have to leave just as the fun is starting?"

"I don't think this curfew is necessary," adds a boy. "And anyway, it should be the parents who decide, not the town council. This law will just make new problems."

And, a common refrain: "They are punishing all of us just because of a handful of troublemakers."

And although, in Interlaken, the authorities claim adults at least are happy with the curfew, many parents do have questions.

"What happens if one of my sons is coming home from the cinema, or football training, just after ten?" asks one mother. "Does he get arrested?"

"I think it's basically fair," says another mother. "If they want to prevent noise and graffiti. It's all about balancing rights and responsibilities."

In fact arrest is unlikely, because in most towns with curfews, Swiss police are not actively enforcing it. Instead the local authorities have employed private security firms.


Kehrsatz has hired Broncos Security, a company which has its origins in a motorcycle club of the same name.

Image source, Philipp Zinniker
Image caption, Broncos security guards have the power to restrain and even handcuff youngsters

"The start of our company was actually a motorcycle club, Broncos MC," explains company manager Roland Steiner, "like the Hell's Angels, or the Bandidos, or the Outlaws."

But while this history has raised eyebrows in Kehrsatz, Mr Steiner insists the security company and the motorcycle club are now "completely separate". And he points to the success his teams have had in reducing late-night noise and graffiti in the communities they work in.

"We talk to the young people," he explains. "We ask them what are you doing, where are you going, do they have alcohol with them, how old are they, we ask to see ID.

"And most of the time we get it because we do it in a friendly way. It's just, if you provoke us, there's a limit, and if you go over the limit, there's the end."

So what is the end exactly? Under Swiss law, the Broncos can restrain and even handcuff a youngster, but from there, the police must be called.

"I think it's a waste of taxpayers' money to employ security guards to impose a blanket curfew," says one father. "If there is really a problem with noise or vandalism, they should identify the culprits and deal with them."

Nowhere to go

And Swiss teenagers also complain that the real problem is lack of space for young people. Most clubs are either barred to under-16s, or simply too expensive. That is why, the under-16s say, so many of them socialise outside, especially in summer.

Many suspect the mere sight of large groups of young people outside on the streets angers "the grown-ups", and that this is what is behind the curfews. Some suggest it is a desire to return to a Switzerland of old, where everything had its place, and rules were obeyed.

But in 21st Century Switzerland, things are different. Last June an impromptu street party in Bern, called Tanz dich Frei (English: Dance yourself Free) attracted more than 25,000 young people, who danced through the streets all night long.

"It was a demonstration for more room, for more free time and space for young people," says Felix Graf. "A very strong sign that we don't want new curfews."

This summer Tanz Dich Frei will happen again. Meanwhile, more curfews are being planned.

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