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Bern seeks to smooth biometric passport concerns



A mobile fingerprinting unit is being tested for people who cannot travel to consulates

A mobile fingerprinting unit is being tested for people who cannot travel to consulates

The authorities are hoping to dispel concerns among Swiss expatriates over the sometimes difficult process of applying for new biometric passports.

Such documents became law at the beginning of March following voters’ approval last year. But some Swiss living abroad have said the process of registering their data when applying for biometric passports is inefficient and complicated.

Certain Swiss diplomatic representations are not yet geared up for taking the digital photographs and fingerprints now included in the biometric passport, forcing some citizens to travel to other consulates. Among them are those who feel unable to travel long distances for either physical or financial reasons. Their concerns were voiced at a Swiss expat forum in London earlier this month.

But the Federal Police Office (Fedpol) says improvements are afoot.

Around 100 Swiss representations are currently set up for processing applications for biometric passports but by May 31 all existing 132 Swiss consulates will be able to handle the data, according to the authorities.

People can also, in theory, supply the required data to the Swiss passport office while visiting Switzerland. However such “exceptional” cases must be prearranged by the applicant’s home Swiss representation and the passport application office.

Fedpol also responded to concerns that the new system would alienate elderly or disabled people. Markus Waldner, the office’s biometric passports project leader, said under the passport law both the elderly and disabled were not required to apply for passports in person.

Embassies and consulates were already applying the rules so they should not have problems, he noted.

A mobile unit - essentially a suitcase equipped for gathering digital photo and fingerprint data - has been designed and is now being tested by Fedpol. This would be used for this specific group of applicants, or for example, as happened during testing, for a sick baby in hospital.

Making life easier

The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) maintains that citizens should have an easy option of renewing their passports during return visits to Switzerland or of supplying the biometric data to the authorities within any of the 25 nations of the European single-border area, known as Schengen states.

“We need to find ways of facilitating things for the Swiss abroad with regard to biometric passports,” said Sarah Mastantuoni, head of the OSA’s legal department.

“For us the main concern is the travel that many Swiss abroad have to do. Especially as there are fewer and fewer Swiss embassies and consulates. The distance to travel is always greater.”

“We hear different versions [about the requirements] depending on who we speak to. I think at the moment there is a big problem of communication at the level of the authorities vis à vis the Swiss abroad regarding this. We want these possibilities to be set up for the Swiss abroad as soon as possible, and for there to be good information sharing.”

Change in thinking

Fedpol official Waldner acknowledges confusion over the new passports needs to be cleared up.

“Changes are always linked to questions, and we understand the concerns of our citizens abroad. However, there might be some slight misconceptions about the new passport application procedure,” he noted.

Information on the changes had been disseminated among embassies and consulates, and in the Swiss Review, an official publication for the Swiss abroad, he said.

“The communication and information concept is being continuously improved, based on reactions from the public and our own observations and experiences by the representations abroad,” he added.

Key to a change in the public perception was the need to see passport procedures differently and to understand that the biometric passports had to be introduced as part of Schengen zone requirements.

People should also remember that before the law was introduced, interested parties had been invited to take part in the process and a project steering committee including cantonal and federal stakeholders were continuing to meet every two months, he said.

“I think it is about a kind of a change in thinking [when applying for a passport]. We have improved security and improving security always involves some extra effort. In fact, apart from fingerprinting, the process for applying has not changed since 2003.”

Jessica Dacey, swissinfo.ch (with input from Justin Häne)

BIOMETRIC PASSPORTS

Biometric passports were issued in Switzerland from March 1 following voters’ approval in a nationwide referendum last year.

The new passport allows travel to the US without a visa, as did a previous 06 version issued as part of a pilot project from 2006. The 03 passport version is only valid for a visa waiver programme if it was issued before October 26, 2006.

Also possibly on the cards are biometric C Permits for foreigners. The government will decide on an obligatory chip for ID cards.

There are around 100 million biometric passports in circulation around the world. In all, 50 countries worldwide use the technology.

All the EU countries, except Britain and Ireland, are required to have biometric passports under Schengen rules. Britain and Ireland have biometric passports with the holder’s facial data on a chip.

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Key facts

According to the Swiss foreign ministry, 684,974 Swiss lived abroad in 2009 (+1.3% on 2008), compared with 7.6 million residents in Switzerland.

130,3017 expatriates aged over 18 have registered to vote, an increase of 4.5%.

Since 1992 Swiss abroad have the right to take part in federal votes/elections via mail from abroad.

There is currently no Swiss expatriate in parliament.

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Council of the Swiss Abroad

The Council of the Swiss Abroad is made up of 140 representatives of the expatriate community and of public life in Switzerland.

The assembly, which meets twice a year, is the senior body of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA).

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