Swiss efforts to integrate foreigners have met with success in Basel, thanks to a variety of projects designed to help the newcomers settle. The city's office for migration and integration hopes the next step will be to secure voting rights for foreigners, at least on a local level.
Today 23 per cent of Basel's population is foreign, and consists of some 145 nationalities. Angela Bryner, at Basel's office for migration and integration, runs a variety of projects designed to help the newcomers settle in to their new homes.
"Integration to me means that every member of our society feels welcome," she says. "Everyone should feel that they belong, whatever the colour of their passport."
One of the first tasks of the integration office is to help new foreign residents to learn German. "This isn't easy," says Bryner, "especially for women, who often find it difficult to get out of the house."
To help foreign women learn their new language, Bryner and her colleagues have developed an innovative teaching project called "learn in the park".
"We decided that since the women found it difficult to come to us, we would go them," explains Bryner. "So we sent our teachers out into the parks, where women often go with their children. We hold the classes there, in the open air, and the women can learn while still keeping an eye on the little ones."
"Learn in the park" has been so successful that the integration office now runs six parallel courses in different parks, and still has a waiting list of almost 300 women.
But making the newcomers feel at home is about more than teaching them German. The integration office's projects include a "welcome to our neighbourhood" package for every foreign arrival to Basel.
The package includes practical information, such as the names and addresses of local doctors and schools, and details of cultural and sporting events. Here again the integration office often targets women.
"A very important thing we have learned is that if we focus on women, we help the whole family," says Bryner. "In every society the woman holds the family together, so if we can make the women feel at home, we take a big step towards making the whole family feel at home."
Bryner's office distributes information to women about how Switzerland's health and social services function. There are also drop-in centres where people can go for advice.
One of the integration office's most successful campaigns, says Bryner, was a project to develop more contact with Basel residents who come originally from Africa.
"We have over 1,000 permanent residents from African countries," says Bryner. "And we realised we hardly knew anything about them, so we invited them all to a welcome party in Basel's town hall. We couldn't believe it when over 500 people turned up. Now we have excellent contacts with the African community."
But Angela Bryner and her colleagues also believe that integration is a two-way process, and that Basel's Swiss population needs to be better informed about its foreign neighbours.
To promote greater understanding and tolerance, the office publishes a regular newspaper with features about all aspects of integration, such as education and employment issues.
And there are regular poster campaigns in Basel, with catchy slogans reminding residents that they live in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society.
Still, Bryner believes there is one thing lacking which would really promote integration not just in Basel but throughout Switzerland.
"Our foreign residents - those who are here permanently - still don't have the right to vote. This is something we are working on because I really believe if people are able to participate in their society by voting, they are able to feel more responsible for their own lives."
Bryner and her colleagues at the integration office hope to put forward a proposal to give permanent foreign residents the right to vote at a local level within the next few years. If it is approved, she believes, it will be a major step towards achieving true integration of all of Basel's 145 nationalities.
by Imogen Foulkes