Swiss sound alarm on immigrants

A right-wing party wants settlers guilty of serious criminal offences deported and is demanding a referendum on the issue.
Anthony Bruw-Smith, a Ghanaian has lived in Switzerland for three years and is married to Severine Jacquesson.
Anthony Bruw-Smith, a Ghanaian has lived in Switzerland for three years and is married to Severine Jacquesson.

GENEVA // When Nguyen Tan Phuoc moved to Switzerland from Vietnam 50 years ago, the country had only a few immigrants. Now, in his adopted home city of Geneva, where Mr Nguyen founded the Asia-Africa Museum of Arts in 1961, an estimated 45 per cent of residents are foreign.

The 76-year-old, now a Swiss citizen, believes the influx of foreigners is creating tension in parts of the country. "Now there are too many people from Eastern Europe and Africa. They pose some social problems because everybody can come here easily now," he said. "Sometimes they don't work, and they do things with drugs. Also there is crime." Mr Nguyen's comments echo those of the right-wing Swiss People's Party, or SVP, whose anti-immigration rhetoric has struck a chord with large sections of the population of this steadfastly independent nation, which has resisted joining the European Union.

The SVP received a 29 per cent share of the vote in national elections in October on the back of a controversial advertising campaign that showed a white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag. Nationwide, at least 20 per cent of the country's population is foreign, with many immigrants coming from the former Yugoslavia, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Citizenship is harder to obtain than in most other European countries, with even Swiss-born children not guaranteed passports.

The SVP is keen to see foreigners guilty of such crimes as murder, rape and other violent offences deported, and has proposed a referendum on the subject. "We want to make it so that if somebody goes to prison for their crimes, he has to go home," said Alain Hauert, a party spokesman. "We cannot accept these people in Switzerland." To call a referendum, the party had to collect 100,000 signatures and present them to the authorities by Jan 2009, but so far it has already handed in more than 230,000 names. "This shows this is an issue with very high attention for people. We will have a better chance to win," Mr Hauert said.

The SVP said the referendum was likely to take place in 2010. A party member also recently submitted signatures calling for a referendum on banning Muslims from building minarets on mosques. According to Mr Hauert, the strong immigration from the Balkans and Turkey meant that people with "completely other values" now lived in Switzerland. "In many ways we have a very nice country, we have many advantages for them, but they don't make any effort to come closer to Swiss culture," he said.

While foreigners make up one-fifth of the country's population, about half of those in jail are non-Swiss. This, the SVP said, means foreigners are four times more likely to commit crimes than native citizens. "There are not as many barriers to them becoming violent," he said. There have been reports that said foreigners suffer social deprivation and that, if more of them were granted Swiss citizenship, their economic fortunes would improve and crime rates would drop.

Also, a study by the Swiss Federal Commission for Foreigners said those from overseas are more likely to be charged and convicted than Swiss citizens who have committed the same offence. Typically, citizenship can be obtained by those who have lived in Switzerland for five years and been married to a Swiss citizen for three years. Permanent residents not married to Swiss citizens should have lived in the country for 12 years.

By comparison, people can apply for British citizenship after spending just three years in the United Kingdom if they are married to a British citizen, or five years otherwise. There are other conditions required for Swiss citizenship, such as showing integration into the country's life, including speaking one of the nation's four official languages, and not breaking the law. Local communities also have a say on whether citizenship is granted.

While they say racism on the streets is rare, many non-Swiss feel they are being stigmatised by xenophobes. Geneva-based Anthony Bruw-Smith, 34, a Ghanaian electrician who has lived in Switzerland for three years and is married to a Swiss woman, said some Swiss blamed foreigners for "taking over their jobs". "Anything bad that happens they think it's foreigners," he said. Choke, 35, a construction worker from Ghana who lives in the Swiss capital Bern, said life was difficult enough already for those from overseas without the SVP imposing further measures. He has lived in the country for 16 years and has yet to be granted a Swiss passport. He did not want to give his full name for fear his application for citizenship could be compromised.

"I was supposed to have mine five years ago," he said. "They say it's because I'm not paying my bills. My son and daughter have Swiss passports by their mother, but they deny me. An African cannot come here and get a passport directly. It's a kind of racism." According to Warisur Rahman, a Bangladeshi who works at his country's diplomatic mission in Geneva, there are "so many hurdles" to obtaining Swiss citizenship.

"It has very difficult naturalisation laws," he said, speaking for himself and not on behalf of the Bangladeshi consulate. For all the SVP's success in elections last year, there are signs the Swiss people could be starting to look more positively on residents who come from overseas. In late May, the SVP heavily lost a referendum designed to end appeals for those turned down for Swiss citizenship. Applicants can continue to appeal to a court if they are rejected. The SVP said this will make it more likely that requests will be approved in the first instance.

The party's fortunes have also waned due to a split that saw it leave the government and lose its two-member representation on the Swiss Federal Council, the seven-person executive that runs the country. There is a ceiling on the SVP's support that will always restrict the party's effectiveness, said Christoph Schumann from the University of Bern's Islamic Science and New Oriental Languages Institute.

"They find popular topics that allow them to win [referendums], but they cannot reach beyond 20 to 30 per cent [in general elections]," he said. "They may be part of the government sometimes and have influence, but they will not have a majority."

Published: July 22, 2008 04:00 AM


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