Minister calls for open dialogue on immigration

Sommaruga warns against exaggerated simplifications in debates over immigration Keystone

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga has warned against downplaying the negative consequences of Europe’s liberal immigration regulations for Switzerland, while at the same time pointing out that the country owes its prosperity in part to foreign labour.

This content was published on December 27, 2012 - 15:02

Sommaruga said it is a mistake to ignore difficulties. Open and fair information about pros and cons is needed.

“It is understandable but not right to single out positive aspects in a bid to convince voters. People like being told the truth,” she said in an interview printed on Thursday in the Tages-Anzeiger and Der Bund newspapers.

But she added that while immigration remained crucial for Switzerland, there could be a conflict between the needs of the economy and the impact of immigration on society.

Sommaruga warned against seeing the issue in “black and white” terms, or blaming every problem on the increasing number of immigrants entitled to enter Switzerland under a key bilateral accord with the European Union.

She called on business leaders to help promote the integration of foreigners, while also taking citizens’ concerns seriously. She welcomed integration efforts by the construction and the restaurant industries, including training programmes and language courses.

Sommaruga came out against proposals to cancel the free movement accord with the EU, which allows citizens of signatory states to live and work in each other’s’ countries,  and also criticised the idea of re-introducing a quota system for immigrants.

Three votes

Over the next two years Swiss citizens are likely to decide on a number of separate immigration issues.

It will have the final say on extending the labour accord with the EU to Croatia, which is set to join the 27-bloc next July.

Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU, has voted at least three times on the free movement of people, granting EU citizens free access to the labour market.

Two separate initiatives to limit immigration are likely to come to nationwide ballots.

A proposal by the People’s Party to cancel the EU labour accord and re-introduce annual quotas, as well as an initiative by the Environment and a Population Association to slow down population growth through immigration limits and birth control.

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Pressure from parties

The rightwing Swiss People’s Party, which traditionally puts immigration high on its political agenda, last February handed in enough signatures for its initiative aimed at suspending the accord with the EU.

No date for a nationwide ballot has yet been set.

The party is also trying to force a second vote for the automatic deportation of any criminal foreigner. It accuses the government of delaying the implementation of a first proposal which won a majority at the ballot box in November 2010.

In November the Environment and Population Association, ecopop, handed in enough signatures for a nationwide vote on curbing population growth by limiting immigration and promoting birth control. Ecopop believes over-population puts unacceptable pressure on the environment.

A leading member of the centre-right Christian Democratic Party has launched a proposal to limit immigration indirectly. Gerhard Pfister, a member of the House of Representatives, called on Swiss companies to give Swiss citizens preference over foreigners when hiring new personnel.


He said the business community had a crucial role in convincing voters of the importance of the labour accord with the EU.

“The main responsibility lies with business. Companies have to realise that they cannot continue to recruit any number of people abroad,” Pfister told the Tages-Anzeiger earlier this month.

For its part, parliament decided in December to boost safeguards, demanded by trade unions and the centre-left Social Democrats, against attempts by foreign companies to undercut salary levels in Switzerland.

In April 2012 the cabinet decided to reintroduce temporary quotas for immigrants from eight eastern European countries.

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