The government has for the first time launched a project to help integrate foreigners into Swiss society. Officials said Switzerland was moving away from its traditional image as a closed society and intended to foster better relations between local and foreign communities.
"Switzerland has more immigrants than any other European country except Luxembourg," Walter Schmid, vice-president of the Federal Commission for Foreigners, told swissinfo.
"It is very important that the government has launched this campaign to underline this reality and also to set aside some financial means to address the problems of integration we face in this country," he continued.
The federal government has earmarked some SFr10 million ($5.56 million) to support 205 projects, which are to focus on helping foreigners learn a Swiss national language.
"Language is absolutely important for communication," Rosemarie Simmen, the chairwoman of the Commission, told swissinfo.
Besides language training, orientation and culture courses will be provided as well as informal discussion forums for women or youths, for example.
Simmen said the Commission would also cultivate relations with "key persons" who are familiar with both foreigners' cultures and Switzerland "so that they can help their fellow countrymen to adapt and integrate better".
A third priority is to help foreigners play a more active role in Swiss political and social life.
"We are very aware that increased participation is an important target to reach. On a national level, for example, we hope that the proposals put forward by the government for the revision of the naturalisation law will be accepted in the end," Schmid said.
The government is currently debating whether to make it easier for foreigners to become Swiss citizens, although it faces strong opposition from the right, who want a ceiling on the number of foreigners allowed into the country. At present, foreigners account for over 19 per cent of the population.
Last week, a report published by a government working group set up to look into crime caused by non-Swiss in the country revealed that asylum seekers are up to ten times more likely to commit an offence than Swiss nationals.
Simmen said that better integration and training programmes would help reduce this crime rate.
"Integration is the best prevention for criminality," Simmen said. "Even people who've been living here for several years tend to commit slightly more crime. But those who are well integrated and feel good living here are much less likely to become criminals."
Simmen pointed out that the Commission's budget would have to at least double over the next year to support increased efforts to integrate foreigners. The current portfolio of projects gets underway in January 2002.
by Samantha Tonkin