Switzerland: The Rejection of Anti-Immigrant Policies by the People

A sigh of relief swept across Switzerland when a controversial proposal from the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) lost in a recent vote on 28 February. The proposal stated that if a foreigner committed two crimes, whether the crimes were minor or major, they would be expelled from the Swiss state. With a 58.9 per cent vote against, the proposition ultimately put an end to the SVP’s most recent effort for the alienation of foreigners. The birth of the proposal grew from the People’s Party’s desire to strengthen a similar proposal that was passed in 2010, which was aimed at foreign criminals. The Party campaigns heavily for anti-immigration measures in the name of protecting the ‘Swissness’ of Switzerland, a country where one in every five persons is a citizen of another country. The People’s Party’s initiative spurred a political divide between Swiss citizens who consider themselves friendly toward immigrants and those who are sceptical of foreigners, leading to a historic election that, at least temporarily, publicly halted the anti-foreigner sentiment growing in the country.

Image courtesy of Richard Allaway, ©2010, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Richard Allaway, ©2010, some rights reserved.

The Swiss political sphere primarily centres on the idea of direct diplomacy, which allows citizens to have a direct voice in Swiss politics. The use of a collective referendum and people’s initiatives enables citizens to make a difference and change laws. The SVP used the means of the people’s initiative in order to change the constitution so it could be biased against foreigners. By definition, a people’s initiative allows any proposal that can get 100,000 signatures within an 18-month period to receive an official, binding vote by the people, rather than ratification by the government. The People’s Party successfully utilized the people’s initiative mechanism in the past, gaining public votes in 2009 and 2010 for laws targeting foreigners, especially those of Arab descent. In 2009, a proposal passed by a 58 per cent majority that banned building minarets on mosques, even when the Swiss government openly condemned the initiative. A year later, by a 53 per cent majority, the SVP’s legislation to deport foreign criminals was passed. Both initiatives were added to the Swiss constitution, and emboldened the SVP to push for even tighter laws against foreigners.

The desire to punish those who are not Swiss citizens not only hurts recent immigrants to Switzerland, but also hurts immigrants who have lived in the country for a long time and consider Switzerland their home. Many Swiss residents will spend the vast majority of their lives living in Switzerland without receiving full citizenship. Depending on the canton of residence, it can take between 3-7 years of residency to qualify for citizenship, and even then various examinations must be conducted and passed in order to gain official citizenship. Many immigrants live off of the various resident permits available, or are classified as “secondos,” children of immigrant parents who were born in Switzerland, but who are not granted automatic citizenship. The People’s Party’s recent proposal would have affected nearly 300,000 ‘secondos,’ even though they have spent their whole lives in Switzerland and identify with the Swiss culture. Furthermore, the bill would have created a two-tier social system. Many secondos have no close family relationships outside of Switzerland, and potential deportation is not only frightening, but irrational.

The rise of mass migration from Middle Eastern countries into Europe as a result of the Syrian Crisis acted as one of the many motivations for the People’s Party’s push for the bill. Traditionally, the People’s Party has campaigned heavily to keep foreigners out of Switzerland, so it came as no surprise that their most recent bill was proposed as the Syrian Refugee Crisis escalated. Toni Brunner, national chairman of the SVP, told a Swiss television station, ‘The people are worried about mass migration to Europe,’ when confronted about the bill. Brunner highlights the fear that, with the influx of refugees rising daily, it is important to protect Switzerland from outsiders. Brunner aims to keep Switzerland isolated from the mass migration, but his policies will also hurt those immigrants currently residing in the state.  The SVP aims to keep Switzerland free from asylum-seeking refugees or to at least reduce immigration to a limited number. Stressing SVP’s scare tactics, ‘The People’s Party is trying to whip up xenophobia with a campaign of hysteria,’ Cesla Amerella, left-wing Social Democratic Party Representative, describes the political tactics the SVP utilizes in order to pass its initiatives. One tactic the SVP uses to fortify their ant-immigrant stance is the notorious image of white sheep kicking out the black sheep from the Swiss flag, which leaves little to the imagination about its meaning and motives. Ultimately, the SVP hope to gain the momentum to turn Switzerland into a primarily ‘Swiss’ state by enforcing strict and biased laws on immigrants.

This rejection of this anti-immigrant policy stands in defiance with many of its neighbours, who have recently implemented more and more draconian measures in an attempt to keep out outsiders. Moreover, the past election received an extremely high voter turnout of 63.1 per cent, a level that had not occurred in more than 20 years. The majority believed that expelling a foreigner for committing two crimes within a ten-year span is unjust and ‘inhumane’. In short, the Swiss people have spoken and they side with the immigrants.

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