Demand for Swiss passports jumped 19% in 2015 and is expected to remain high this year amid immigration uncertainties and stricter application rules. In Geneva, where the figure trebled, swissinfo.ch went to a mass oath ceremony for new citizens to find out more.
Dressed in their Sunday best, around 300 people quietly file into the historic Plainpalais communal hall and take their seats for a swearing-in ceremony for new Swiss and Geneva citizens.
For many, this highly symbolic event is the culmination of a long process. As they wait patiently, some tap away on their phones, while others watch as shiny red-and-white translucent material swirls in the air, blown by fans as part of an art installation.
Finally, the master of ceremony enters and the audience rises.
“I would like to solemnly welcome you. This is an important step in your career as citizens,” declares Pierre Maudet, the Geneva councillor in charge of the cantonal population and immigration office.
In a rousing speech, he reminds the audience of their new responsibilities and rights.
“Some people think it is just a formality to come along and pick up a passport today and then leave. No, today you took a commitment on behalf of the community. We want citizens who can bring new ideas, whether they be economic, social or cultural,” says Maudet.
“We are going to get you working straight away. There is a vote coming up soon with a dozen different issues to decide upon. Some of you may be from parts of the world where you do not have such a chance to vote.”
He then slowly reads out each person’s name, tripping over one or two trickier Balkan or African pronunciations. The exotic mix reflects the Geneva melting pot, where over 40% of residents are of foreign origin.
Each person stands and raises a hand declaring “I swear” or “I promise”. A few tears are wiped away. Then the final test: singing the national anthem in unison - with the help of a karaoke screen.
Demand for citizenship has rocketed. Last year saw a record for Geneva with a total of 5,971 naturalisations, up from 2,238 in 2014. Across the country, naturalisations increased significantly in 2015 to 40,588, up from 32,988 in 2014 – a 19% jump.
After, it is time for a traditional Swiss aperitif with family and friends.
“This is very important for me,” beams Rim Bitar, a young Syrian woman from between Damascus and Homs, proudly displaying her Swiss citizenship certificate.
“I love living here even though I also love Syria,” she declares. “I'm an economics student but with my Syrian nationality it doesn't pass everywhere. I hope my Swiss nationality will now help me with my job hunting. I hope I can find a good job in a company, at the UN, or in the humanitarian world. I want to be useful for society.”
Dressed in a bright-red traditional Swiss costume and carrying the flags of Geneva, Switzerland and Jamaica, Yvonne Reid is all smiles.
“It has been a long process, over four years, so today I am just saying hallelujah. Thanks to Switzerland,” says the Jamaican woman, who has also applied for citizenship for her son for his “personal and professional development”.
“I came here 22 years ago, so this is home,” she said. “Citizenship will help me in terms of my educational development. I am aiming to go to a French-speaking university to study early childhood development or something about the disabled or the elderly.”
Normally, around 100 people take part in each Geneva ceremony but since last year there has been an increase. The naturalisation process has been slashed from 38 months to 18 and officials have been working hard to get through a backlog of applications.
Later that afternoon, 300 more people will be sworn in; seven more mass sessions are planned in the coming weeks.
Maudet believes many eligible people have suddenly decided to take the step. This is partly due to strict changes to the law on Swiss nationality, which come into force in 2017.
From then, applicants must only complete ten years’ residence instead of the 12 at present, but they must have lived in the same canton for between 2-5 years (depending on the region) and also pass a new written language test as well as the existing oral exam.
Foreigners with B permits (resident), short-term L permits or the so-called ‘carte de legitimation’ for international civil servants and their family members, can still apply for citizenship up until the law comes into force in 2017. Afterwards they must hold a C settlement permit, which is granted after 5-10 years residency.
“Many of my colleagues working in international organisations are applying,” said Hans-Peter Werner, a German-Canadian official from the Geneva-based World Trade Organization (WTO), who received his passport this week.
Maudet estimates around 5,000 international civil servants and family members may be interested in taking the step before the end of 2016.
According to University of Neuchâtel professor Etienne Piguet, vice-president of the Federal Migration Commission, uncertainties over immigration, in particular the anti-immigration vote of February 9, 2014 and possible quota system, may also be encouraging more people to apply for a Swiss passport.
“Some foreigners may be feeling insecure and fear losing their residence permits if they become unemployed,” Piguet told the Swiss News Agency.
Maudet agrees: “If you have a Swiss passport, you have the guarantee to be able to leave the country and come back. If you have a foreign passport and quotas are introduced, you might have a problem.”
Guillaume Lejoindre, who got citizenship last year with his wife after living in Geneva for 16 years, said the February 9 vote was definitely a motivating factor.
“Right now each country has a slight tendency to close itself off from others and the question of nationality has become more important than in other times,” he noted.
While the need for a secure place of residence and job may be pushing some people to apply, for many the reasons are more deep-rooted.
“I’ve been living in Geneva for a long time. I have a C permit and a job. I did it especially to feel reassured. I felt Swiss and someone from Geneva but now it’s been confirmed. For me it’s a question of the heart,” explains Maria José Rey Otero, who also has Spanish nationality.