The conditions and red tape around the process of applying for Swiss citizenship lead some to see it as an onerous task. One swissinfo.ch reader explains how a recent citizenship information evening in Basel made him think differently about it.
Earlier this year, my family and I became eligible to apply for Swiss citizenship. The moment came six months sooner than I expected, due to the reduction of the residency requirement from 12 to ten years, a change that became effective on January 1st this year.
We were notified of all this by an invitation to a presentation outlining the naturalization process, to be given by a member of the Basel City Council. The meeting was scheduled for 7pm on a Wednesday evening in early May, and while I was pretty sure that I knew how the process worked, I decided to attend anyway.
It seemed a good opportunity to gather in a cosy setting with twenty or thirty other newly-eligible immigrants. However, this idea of an intimate, quasi-personal setting should have been dispelled when I saw that the meeting would take place in the chamber of Basel’s town hall.
Though I arrived fifteen minutes early, the room – designed to hold around 200 people – was already almost full; by the time the presentation began there were easily 300 people present. In the seats, in the tribune, in the aisles, along the back wall. There were even people sitting in the seats reserved for members of the Cantonal Council during their bi-monthly meetings.
Wow, I thought as I gazed around the room and wondered whether the organizers had expected such a turnout. My question was answered by the opening words of a representative from the migration department, who began by saying how astonished he was by the crowd.
He was undaunted, however, and moved ahead with reviewing the agenda before handing over to a political counterpart from the municipal council. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see him from my seat in the balcony, but I could hear him and was grateful that he and his colleagues addressed us in High German rather than the Basel dialect that continues to elude me.
New citizens only on Thursdays
After welcoming with a few words about what it meant to become a Swiss citizen, he passed the baton to more representatives – another council member and a delegate from the office of Naturalization and Residency Permits, who carried the ball for the remainder of the meeting.
The naturalisation process was summarised, beginning with the first (basic) step of a visit to the Immigration Office, apparently only possible on Thursdays. After saying this, the Permit official remarked that, coincidently, Thursday was the next day – perhaps it would be best if not everyone in the room stopped by at once, he said, to ripples of laughter.
Next, he shared a video of street interviews with people who were asked whether they were Swiss, and if so, what it meant to be Swiss. Most spoke in a pretty heavy dialect so I couldn’t understand much of what they had to say, but they were serious, even solemn, and at the same time often funny.
One lady in particular, who to my ears might as well have been speaking Russian, communicated sufficiently through her facial expressions and cadence that I found myself laughing just as hard as those in the room who actually understood what she was saying.
In the end, none of the information communicated was news to me but I gained a sense of the enthusiasm within the crowd, something that alone made the time spent attending worthwhile. These folks were clearly interested in doing this. They were happy to be in the room and weren’t doing so simply to participate in the inevitable apéro at the end of the evening.
The second half of the meeting was reserved for Q&A, and the circulating microphone picked up various, often very personal, questions. One lady introduced herself as being from Aleppo; she had a question about her birth certificate, she said. One of the application requirements is that you provide an original copy of your birth certificate, issued within the last six months.
The woman remarked that the office where she would get hers no longer exists and she was afraid to return in person to find out what she must do. Her question was simple. What were her options? The crowd was silent as she asked this.
She was advised to come by the citizenship office to speak with someone there. She then asked the official if he would personally help her. Her boldness in asking this, and the way in which she did it, wasn’t cheeky. It was touching. The crowd responded with supportive laughter, and when the official said that yes, he would, there were cheers.
It was a feel-good moment and I was glad to have been able to experience it.
After the meeting was over I stopped by the apéro as I was leaving and there, on the tables, was proof that they did not expect over 300 people. A few baskets of crackers and five or six savoury cakes with bacon bits. I left them to everyone else and went home for dinner.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch.