Foreigners sometimes face unique hurdles when trying to integrate into Swiss society because the Swiss themselves wrestle with who they are.
That was one point social anthropologists, federal advisers and university experts debated in Bern this week, when they discussed identity and integration among migrants in Switzerland.
More than 1.6 million foreigners now live permanently in Switzerland - about one-fifth of the population.
"Swiss identity is not rigid but developed over time and continues to develop," Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf told the forum organised by the newly-created federal commission on migration issues.
"It can be painful and unending but with our history – cantons that united, each with its own history and culture - we can overcome these challenges."
Community versus society
Hans-Rudolf Wicker, a social anthropologist at Bern University, argued that a pluralist society like Switzerland must be careful when discussing a collective identity because doing so can lead to excluding others.
"Societies are a product of industrialization and they need something around which to organise, a state, to create cohesion," he told swissinfo.
"Communities, however, each have a strong identity, face-to-face, and are not as welcoming to outsiders."
The Swiss have strong ties to their communities as people tend to stay close to their home canton and frequently associate more with that particular region than with a national identity.
That is different in neighbouring countries, Wicker said.
"Germany has a strong identity – das Volk – and France has a strong identity as well, but it's different because it's more of a state identity," he said.
"Politicians here have to say we are a nation of will because we don't have this identity. We have to work on it constantly. It's my opinion that we see this weak identity played out through a strong stance toward immigrants."
Integration and identity
Francis Matthey, president of the federal commission on migration issues, said Swiss identity could not be defined without considering foreigners.
"In the debate about immigration, foreigners sometimes come to represent what we aren't or what we don't want to be," he said.
"We speak of Swiss identity and how to preserve it. But who we are corresponds to who others are. To respect them is to respect ourselves."
Integration, therefore, was a two-way street. Populations in host countries can be disconcerted by the arrival of more immigrants and the formation of diasporas.
Yet diasporas, Wicker said, can help immigrants ease into new societies without losing their identity.
Jürgen Nowak, a German from the Europa-Institut in Berlin, said integration hinges largely upon immigrants having access to job training and the workplace. Without that they have a much harder time escaping what he called a "parallel society" within the host country.
In the end, though, politics is an often limited means for achieving integration, said Serge Slama from the Evry Val d'Essonne University Research Centre in France.
"When France won the World Cup, that did more for integration than years of political discourse," he said.
swissinfo, Tim Neville
In 2007 nearly 144,000 foreigners took up residence in the country, an increase of 45 per cent from 2005.
The three cantons with the largest number of permanent foreign residents are Zurich (299,842), Vaud (195,071) and Geneva (163,951).
The three cantons with the largest proportions of foreign residents are Basel City with 33.3 per cent (56,106 people), Schaffhausen with 31.6 per cent (16,323 people), and Basel Country with 29.9 per cent (48,719 people).
Commission on migration
The federal commission on migration issues was created by the Swiss government on January 1, 2008.
It is a committee of non-parliamentarians that advises cabinet members and administrators on questions about migration as well as publishing reports and recommendations.
The commission is made up of 30 members, nearly half of whom have had direct experience with migration and migration agencies themselves.
Switzerland has eight types of residency permits for non-European Union nationals. Each is assigned a letter. Some of the more common permits include:
A B permit allows foreign nationals to stay in the country for longer periods of time for a specific purpose, with or without gainful employment. It must be renewed each year and is tied to a specific canton.
A C permit, or settlement permit, can be obtained after having a B permit for five to ten years, depending on nationality. It has no restrictions.
A G permit allows residents in neighbouring countries to cross into Switzerland for work. They may work anywhere in Switzerland but must return home at least once a week.
An N permit is granted to those seeking asylum. During the process they are entitled to live in Switzerland and under some cases may work.