Expats fight for funds and respect at home
The Swiss expatriate community has called for better recognition at home of its economic, political and cultural role abroad.
The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) demanded over the weekend improved legal status and better access to the federal administration. Representatives protested moves that would limit the group's information sources as well.
"It is a mistake to underestimate the invaluable wealth and the potential the Swiss abroad represent for the country," said Jacques-Simon Eggly, OSA president during its annual congress in Lucerne.
He said the government and the business world did not appreciate enough the importance of expatriates, who now number nearly 700,000: "They are like raw diamonds."
Eggly urged the government to prepare a draft law that formally backs the role of the Swiss abroad and creates a single service out of many now spread over several ministries.
The meeting, which was attended by 400 people from across the globe, also made a passionate plea for the reinstatement of government funding for the Swiss Review magazine, which suffered severe cuts in subsidies last year.
Swiss schools also deserve increased financial support by the government, according to Eggly.
Filippo Lombardi, who heads a parliamentary pressure group, said it was not easy to win the necessary respect and backing by politicians for the expatriate community.
"Up to ten per cent of Swiss citizens live abroad, but they are not really heard at home," he said.
He expects to see improved efforts by parliament and government to acknowledge their true value before the end of next year.
Lombardi in 2005 called on the government to present a report on the significance of emigrants for Switzerland. However, additional studies are necessary on the issue according to a senior foreign ministry official.
In a keynote speech, the Federal Chancellor, Corina Casanova, pledged that remote electronic voting would be introduced by 2015, making it easier for the Swiss abroad to cast votes in Switzerland.
She said extensive preparations were necessary to guarantee a secure online voting system that takes into account numerous laws and the linguistic diversity of the country.
"You may say the government was too modest to show its efforts to push ahead with e-voting. We do not need big headlines, but we want the project to succeed," she said.
First trials were launched in Switzerland six years ago. They are being extended to an increasing number of citizens and different cantons. Swiss expatriates registered in Geneva will be part of further tests during a nationwide vote in November 2009.
For his part, OSA president Eggly acknowledged the efforts by the government to ensure the democratic rights of the expatriates. About 125,000 citizens have registered to vote.
A panel discussion, including an health expert, a scientist, an artist and a former diplomat, highlighted the image the diversity of the Swiss expatriate community.
Zimbabwe-based doctor and Aids expert Ruedi Lüthy, psychologist Sabine Raeber from Oslo University, author Zoë Jenny from London and Raymond Loretan, former consul-general in New York, explained their motivations to live and work abroad.
They are aware of the role as representatives of Swiss values but refuted the idea of being mandated to act as messengers of the government.
"We benefit from the status as exotic birds," said Jenny.
Lüthi added he had no trouble representing certain Swiss values, such as punctuality, even though other people poked fun at him at times.
"The Swiss abroad remains a Swiss," concluded Loretan.
Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch
France: 177,598 Swiss citizens
United States: 74,862
Data: 2008, Organisation of the Swiss Abroad
Council of the Swiss Abroad
The council is made of delegates from the expatriate community and public life in Switzerland.
The 140-strong assembly meets twice a year and is the senior body of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA).
At its latest session on Friday, the group called on the authorities to reconsider funding cuts and restrictions for Swiss Review magazine and the multi-media platform, swissinfo.ch.
About 680,000 Swiss – nearly 10% of the overall Swiss population - lived abroad last year and three out of four have dual nationality, according to official statistics.
Two out of three expats were based in a European Union country, mostly in neighbouring France and Germany.
Some 74,000 Swiss lived in the United States in 2008 – making them the third largest group of Swiss expats.
More than 125,000 Swiss abroad have registered to vote. However, no expat sits in the Swiss parliament.
This year's congress of the Swiss abroad in Lucerne focused on the political and economic importance of expatriates.
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