Streets of the Swiss capital Bern. Photo by Larisa Epatko
BASEL, Switzerland | The small nation of Switzerland, which already has a higher immigrant population than most of its neighbors, is about to vote on a measure that could be another bellwether of anti-immigration sentiment spreading across the European continent.
Switzerland, which adopts many laws by referendum, votes this month on a contentious measure that would make it mandatory to deport non-Swiss residents who have been convicted of serious crimes.
Some voters in the country of 7.6 million view the initiative as impractical and a political ploy. But others consider it necessary to target the country’s crime.
The conservative Swiss People’s Party collected 210,000 signatures, more than double the amount needed to pose the question to Swiss voters.
“We have a serious crime problem in Switzerland,” said Martin Baltisser, general secretary of the Swiss People’s Party, or SVP, indicating that the initiative would make the country more secure.
Swiss laws already allow the deportation of foreign criminals after they serve their sentence, but the initiative would facilitate the legal process to expel the criminals, he said.
State Secretary for Economic Affairs Jean-Daniel Gerber said the initiative is unnecessary for the very reason that not much would change. And if a country will not accept the criminals, they will have to stay in Switzerland anyway, he said.
“This is an existing problem with no direct link to the initiative,” said Baltisser, adding that only a few countries do not take back their criminal citizens.
Gerber likened the deportation initiative to the mosque minarets ban, approved almost exactly a year ago, which he said he also opposed.
“The image we have shown to the world is really not a good one,” he said.
Although Switzerland has one of the highest per capita immigration rates in the world — about 20 percent of the country’s population is foreign — it also has some of the tightest naturalization laws in Europe. Being born in Switzerland doesn’t automatically grant someone citizenship. A person must live in the country for at least 12 years, or five years if they are married to a Swiss, they must pay taxes and not have a criminal record to become a citizen.
Immigrants from the former Yugoslavia make up the largest group at 24 percent, with immigrants from Italy comprising the second largest group but on the decline, according to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. The number of immigrants from other countries, such as Portugal and Turkey, is on the rise.
“Whether or not Switzerland wants to be, it’s an immigration country,” Gerber said.
Frank Keller, 60, a store owner in Basel who backs the initiative, said it was foolish for Switzerland to think it could open up its borders and then go back and impose regulations.
“It’s a paradise for criminals, because we have everything. It’s easy to take from the ones who have,” he said. “It’s stupid and naÃ¯ve to import the problems and afterward think we can regulate. It’s not so easy.”
Keller said he reads about crimes foreigners have committed everyday in the newspaper, but there are likely many more that aren’t reported, he said.
Camille Vial, 33, a Geneva resident who works for a private banking firm, said she is against the initiative because it discriminates against non-Swiss by ejecting them from the country if they have committed a crime, rather than letting them serve their sentence and remain in the country like the Swiss.
“If you live here, you have your family here, all your life is here. You have to be treated the same if you are Swiss or non-Swiss,” said Vial.
The initiative, she said, also seems to be more of a political move, since it only affects a few people. “It’s how they (the SVP) distinguish themselves from the others. Probably it’s another way just to be on the cover of all the newspapers.”
The vote on the deportation initiative takes place Nov. 28. Voters will decide between the SVP’s initiative and a government-sponsored alternative that would allow appeals.
Update: On Nov. 28, Swiss voters approved the plan to automatically deport foreigners who commit serious crimes. Nearly 53 percent voted in favor and 47 percent against.