As a foreigner living in Switzerland I’m only too well aware about concern over the number of foreigners moving to Switzerland.
In this central European country of about 8.2 million people, just under 2 million (1.99 million, in fact) of inhabitants are foreigners, 68% of them from the EU/EFTA.
The numbers aren’t rising, though. The number of foreigners moving to Switzerland fell in 2015 while emigration rose, resulting in a second consecutive annual slowdown in net immigration, facts you wouldn’t necessarily glean from popular newspaper headlines.
The number of asylum requests did increase by two-thirds, however, to 39,523.
Switzerland isn’t a top destination for asylum seekers and political refugees. As a percentage of asylum applications made in Europe, 3% are in Switzerland, down from 3.8% in 2014. It’s the lowest percentage figure since 1998, according to official statistics.
It hasn’t stopped populist demands for restrictions.
A referendum from the SVP, the Swiss People’s Party, calling on the government to deport foreign lawbreakers is gathering support. The vote takes place on 28 February. The black versus white imagery used by the campaigners would be controversial anywhere else but here (see picture, above).
On the street, however, the imagery echoes apparently deeply held fears. The main concern besides ‘who pays for the influx of immigrants’ is a widespread concern about ‘crimes committed by foreigners’.
Is a crime wave underway? Critics say not – not yet, anyway. And they see it as a slippery slope. Once you agree to deportation measures for serious crimes, where does it stop – do you eventually include traffic offences? Antisocial behaviour? In Switzerland antisocial behaviour includes washing your car on a Sunday or holding a loud party after nightfall. Among some foreigners living here, a police visit is a sign of a successful party. For the Swiss it’s a badge of dishonour and a sign you are not a considerate neighbour. Good neighbourliness matters here.
Arguably the biggest question, though, is if you one day deport a genuine asylum seeker for some transgression, where do you send them? Back home to be met by who knows what? It’s a tough one. In this debate, some questions are easier to ask than to answer.