Every year some 30,000 Swiss leave their homeland to try their luck elsewhere. For those for whom the dream of a better life doesn’t come true, Swiss law obliges the government to ensure they are financially looked after.
“To my knowledge, we are one of the rare countries which delivers welfare assistance of this kind to their citizens living in foreign countries,” said Sandro Monti, head of the Social Assistance Unit for Swiss Abroad (ASE) within the Federal Justice Office. “Sure, other states also help their citizens in need when abroad but it’s generally only a short-term support.”
An informal survey of diplomatic missions in Bern revealed that this is indeed the case: Germany put an end to the practice of welfare assistance for its expats a decade ago, while a spokesman for the United States embassy, Alex Daniels, said Americans overseas are not entitled to any welfare or unemployment benefits, and any financial assistance provided for repatriation must be paid back.
Between 300-600 Swiss abroad receive welfare assistance provided by the ASE at an annual cost of SFr2-5 million ($2.01-5.22 million). The unit also finances about 100-200 repatriations a year. With some 700,000 Swiss living abroad, this amounts to about one in 10,000 who receive financial assistance from their government.
Such is the case of Mrs R., a Swiss-Peruvian dual national who relocated with her Chilean husband and two children from Switzerland to Chile in 2005 to start their own business. She first applied for financial assistance to return to Switzerland in the same year.
“My husband hardly recognised his country,” Mrs R. told swissinfo.ch. “The business that we financed with our savings and pension money quickly went bankrupt, and I never managed to adapt to life here. I developed a chronic illness and even today, I am still unable to contribute financially to the household.”
Rights and obligations
If it seems something of an anomaly that Switzerland offers welfare assistance to those who voluntarily leave the country, the government justified the creation of the law in 1973 because international law does not oblige other states to come to the aid of Swiss in trouble in their countries.
“Humanitarian considerations make it necessary to aid our compatriots abroad if they cannot obtain the necessary assistance either from the country of residence, or from the private sector,” the government declared then.
Prior to the federal law being enacted, cantons individually chose in what manner they assisted their citizens abroad, which gave rise to questions of fairness.
“It wasn’t unusual that a Swiss expatriate originally from Zurich, for example, obtained a level of aid that was completely different to what his neighbour from [canton] Graubünden received,” said Monti.
But welfare assistance from Switzerland is not an automatic right for the Swiss abroad. Mrs R.’s first request for aid was rejected on the grounds that under the law, dual nationals for whom the foreign nationality is considered predominant are not eligible. Mrs R. had spent three-quarters of her life living abroad, therefore her Peruvian nationality was predominate, the ASE ruled.
The law also stipulates that citizens abroad must be well integrated in their new country – through the passing of time, marriage, children - to be eligible for financial assistance.
Assistance for expats
In addition to the 155 Swiss diplomatic missions which provide consular assistance to travellers, several expat associations come to the aid of the long-term Swiss abroad, among other services they offer.
In Paris for example, the Swiss Society of Charity has been operating since 1820 and currently has around 20 volunteers who go to the aid Swiss expats who are sick or lonely, help them with administrative matters and make hospital visits, among other things.
In Thailand as well, where the Swiss community is growing, a telephone support service “Swiss Support Swiss” helps people to find ways around their troubles but does not have the recourses to help financially.
“Currently, we support some 50 people,” president of the Swiss Society of Charity Madeleine Boulanger told swissinfo.ch. “To do so, we work directly with the Swiss embassy, which often brings cases to our attention.”
Last year the society assisted several people who were unable to pay their bills, such as an elderly woman whose bank cut off her credit card.
“From one day to the next, she found herself with nothing. She didn’t have enough to eat,” said Boulanger. “Luckily, her neighbours alerted the embassy which called us and we were able to help her.”
Financial benefits for all
The ASE works closely with Swiss diplomatic missions to ensure requests for welfare assistance are legitimate, and beneficiaries of payments must pay the money back if their situation changes substantially.
“We help them by providing the minimum income vital for living in that country, where they are rooted,” explained Monti, adding that if these Swiss returned home after several years in another country, they would likely access social security benefits in Switzerland, which would be significantly more expensive.
“The average financial cost per case is about SFr1,800 a month in Switzerland compared to about SFr400 abroad,” he pointed out.
Mrs R. was granted financial assistance to repatriate to Switzerland in March this year, after appealing a second negative decision by the ASE to the Federal Administrative Court. The court took into account her children holding only Swiss nationality and because they were unable to return to Switzerland alone, the parents were thus also entitled to repatriation assistance.
Monti said the pair of decisions to deny financial assistance to Mrs R. stemmed from conflicting information provided in her two requests for aid. Embassy staff in Santiago were also under the impression the children held Chilean identity cards and were thus dual nationals, he said.
The court for its part noted the failure of Mrs R. to attend several meetings at the embassy, which she explained was because: “I didn’t have enough money for the bus fare”.
As of 2011, more than 700,000 Swiss were living abroad, about 62% (435,000) of whom live in Europe.
The largest Swiss expat communities are in France (26%), Germany (11%), the United States (11%) and Italy (7%).
Each year, some 30,000 Swiss leave the country and about 25,000 return.
In recent years, educational and professional opportunities have led to an increased trend towards short-term or temporary stays abroad.
Three-quarters of Swiss living abroad are of working age (18-65 years).end of infobox
(Adapted by Sophie Douez), swissinfo.ch