Skilled migration into Switzerland more than doubled between 1991 and 2014, according to a study published as part of the Social Change in Switzerland series. Since the turn of the century, there has been an immigration boom, notably of the young and highly skilled. Immigrants with tertiary qualifications have increased from 30,000 in 1991 to 60,000 in 2007, and they come from all over the world – even the UK, US, Portugal and West Africa. This is largely a result of demand from the workplace. (It is normal to have a job offer in place before arrival.) They remain a minority however – fewer than 30 per cent of all highly skilled workers in Switzerland are imported.
What does this tell us about Swiss immigration policy?
I have experienced all this at first hand. As retirees, we were more than welcome, as long as we were self-sufficient – ie able to pay local/cantonal/federal taxes, afford health insurance, and find a place to rent (since we were not eligible to buy). There was a bit of Catch 22 there – no residence permit, no apartment. But no apartment, no permit. We discussed, and compromised. It all took about a month. Having registered with a Gemeinde (local authority) of a mere 4,000 souls, it was clear that the authority was keeping a close, and well-informed, eye on all its residents, us included. It was only after five years of B-residency that – having paid our taxes, not committed any crime, funded our health care and observed all local customs and religious holidays – we were finally granted C-status: indefinite permission to remain. Now we could buy. But no possibility of getting citizenship, far less a vote, until we had been fully resident in the same canton for 12 years, and had passed a rigorous examination – in Swiss German! – about the political system, Swiss history and customs, and even how to cook raclette. No, I won’t be opting for that, since younger neighbours who have finally succeeded said it was really hard.
So, you get the impression. The Swiss can seem a bit picky when it comes to their civic welcome. You have to be self-sufficient, or be very highly qualified, and positive about Swiss-ness. As a socially responsible society – cradle of the Red Cross, the UN, Pestalozzi education, for starters – the Swiss are increasingly aware of human rights issues, and have their activist groups, such as Amnesty International and Médecins sans Frontières. But with a political system based on direct democracy, where any change to the law or constitution has to be accepted by a voter majority, its immigration policies differ from most of Europe. It’s more careful, less generous (or soft, if you prefer). The population remain very patriotic, and have a history of looking after their own – especially their farmers, and, yes, their bankers. This has implications for its response to the current mass migration into Europe and the West.
In the twentieth century, immigration into Switzerland was fairly liberal, with peaks and troughs generally following economic cycles. This changed once bilateral agreements were made with the EU, from 1999 onwards, involving free movement within the EU, and the Schengen and Dublin agreements, all of which came into effect in 2008. The admission of people from non-EU/EFTA countries is regulated by the Foreign Nationals Act, and is limited to highly skilled workers who are urgently required and likely to integrate successfully. Quotas are established each year, eg in 2012 there were 3,500 residency permits and 5,000 short-term permits. These regulations are routinely enforced by the authorities: after all, why have rules and laws if you don’t intend to enforce them? The borders are physically protected by armed guards. Indeed tanks may be rolled out to bolster border protection at Chiasso. No immigrant ‘caravan’ would ever force its way through the border defences. But perhaps they wouldn’t try to. Swiss welfare policies remain basically a safety net and not a lifestyle choice. It is also a country where Christian religious observance, certainly outside the inner cities, is still very much in place.
But asylum is a different matter, and as it has become a major issue throughout the world, Switzerland has accepted its responsibilities. Again, the policies are clearly defined and carried out.
Asylum applications can be made only in Switzerland itself, or at the border, and not from abroad. If you come in by plane, your entire asylum processing will take place in the airport transit zone, by the airport police. If your application is denied, that’s it. You don’t have free access into the country. Entry by land requires the application to be made at one of five federal processing centres, where you will be fingerprinted, photographed, and your identity papers taken. Then there is an interview, to establish travel routes, reasons for seeking asylum, your languages, identity, health and age, as well as other countries where you have lived. All very thorough, and quite daunting.
Your application will be dismissed if you have come into the country from another safe country, as per the Dublin regulations, or if you are an economic or health migrant. Should this be the case, ‘the contents of the asylum application are not then processed, and the persons usually have to leave Switzerland again very quickly’. If your application is initially accepted, you will be transferred to a transit centre, within an assigned canton, and granted an N-permit, which means you will be housed, afforded the minimum legal social assistance and, after three months, a work permit. At the same time, you will continue to be investigated, and asked for documentary evidence, eg court rulings or police summonses. It is then up to the SEM, the State Secretariat for Migration, whether to accept your case or turn it down. If the latter, you will be removed, to your country of origin or actual native country. You can appeal, but you have only thirty days to do so, or only five if you are still at the airport. Thereafter any appeals have to be carried out from where you have been sent back to.
If you are successful, you will be granted a B-residency and a refugee travel document in accordance with the Geneva Refugee Convention. Spouses and minor children are then allowed to enter Switzerland, and are granted asylum. As long as you have a work permit, you are able to work in any sector. But you have to ensure correct law-abiding behaviour. In 2010 there was a people’s initiative calling for foreign criminals to be deported automatically. Under this new law, enacted in 2016, first-time foreign offenders who commit serious crimes can be expelled for between five and fifteen years. For serial offenders this can be extended to twenty years or even a life-time ban. The majority of those who have been affected by this have been people with temporary work permits, asylum seekers, tourists or illegals. Eighty per cent of those sentenced to prison were also deported. This applies also to second-generation immigrants born in Switzerland but without Swiss citizenship.
Rigorous, or what?
And still not everyone agrees with what has been decreed as federal policy, especially when that involves placing refugees in Swiss towns and villages, since it is the local Gemeinde that has to finance their housing and welfare benefits. Some have chosen to pay hefty fines rather than accept the refugees. In the Alpine resort village of Oberwil-Lieli, which has a population of 2,200, of whom 300 are millionaires, residents voted to pay CHF 200,000 (£156,000) between them rather than welcome their quota of ten individuals. They insisted on the right to ‘protect their way of life’. These were refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria, and they were Muslim. Later, the village agreed to accept five Syrian migrants, but all of them were Christian.
The Swiss system ensures that all decisions are made in the interests of the Swiss people. It remains a very attractive destination for young highly skilled and ambitious workers, and also for self-sufficient older people looking for a quiet life. But is it fair? That depends – fair for whom? According to Amnesty International, it is far from fair for refugees and migrants. But for the Swiss voter, it is absolutely fair and protects Swiss culture and the economy.
At least in Switzerland you can see who’s in charge.