Around 600,000 of the 1.5 million foreigners in Switzerland fulfil the criteria to become Swiss citizens, according to a new report by the Federal Statistics Office. It adds that one in four foreigners eligible for citizenship was born in Switzerland.
The report, published on Monday, says about 20,000 foreigners acquired a Swiss passport in 1999. Over the past 18 years, more than 240,000 became Swiss citizens.
The rate of naturalisations - at 1.5 per cent of the foreign population - is low compared to other European countries, even though foreigners account for 19.3 per cent of the population, one of the highest levels in Europe.
The director of the Federal Statistics Office, Carlo Malaguerra, told swissinfo that one of the main reasons for the generally low rate of naturalisations is the cumbersome, long and often costly procedure.
Naturalisations are governed by a federal law that was last amended in 1992, but the process also involves cantonal and local authorities.
The statistics office recorded high rates of naturalisations for citizens from Asian, African and eastern European countries. But people from European Union countries were noticeably less keen on getting a Swiss passport.
"EU citizens often have no interest because they cannot have double nationality, and would lose their EU citizenship, if they want a Swiss passport," said Malaguerra.
The report also said that there was no obvious regional pattern in the number of citizenships awarded. However, communes near big cities were found to naturalise more foreigners than local authorities in rural areas.
The study also tried to establish whether there was discrimination against people of certain nationalities or racial background. "There are indications [that this may be the case]," Malaguerra said, "but we have no statistical proof."
He said the question would need further analysis.
Reacting to the report, Michele Galizia of the Federal Anti-Racism Commission, underlined the need for a fair, transparent and humane naturalisation process.
Galizia told swissinfo that a preliminary study would be published next month to establish whether the process, notably on local level, is open to discrimination against certain ethnic groups.
Earlier this year, a controversial decision by a town near Lucerne caused an outcry. Voters in Emmen rejected requests for citizenship from people originating from the Balkans and Turkey, while granting naturalisations to Italian applicants.
Moves are also underway in parliament to ease the citizenship procedures for young foreigners living in Switzerland. Five years ago, a similar proposal was turned down in a nationwide vote.
swissinfo with agencies