How foreigners can be better integrated in Switzerland

The integration of foreigners - a major issue in Swittzerland Keystone

Despite rejecting an initiative aimed at reducing the number of foreigners, most Swiss recognise that much still needs to be done to integrate them into society, even in a multicultural melting pot like Geneva.

This content was published on September 25, 2000 minutes

Of all the Swiss cantons, Geneva voted in the greatest numbers to throw out Sunday's initiative, which would have cut the number of foreigners in Switzerland to 18 per cent. Some 76 per cent of Genevans voted no.

This is hardly surprising as Geneva's population contains the highest proportion of foreigners - around 37 per cent.

"We're glad that the initiative wasn't passed, but we're concerned that over 35 per cent of voters said yes," says Sandrine Salerno of the city's Centre for Contact between Swiss and Immigrants (CCSI).

"This remains a major issue for the Swiss authorities and Swiss people to debate," she told swissinfo.

The CCSI is one of two groups which believe that, for all its reputation as an international and humanitarian capital, Geneva is not doing enough to make its foreign residents feel at home.

In November, a draft law, proposed by the CCSI and MondialContact, will go before the cantonal parliament. It will seek to persuade the local government to instigate a new integration policy, because without a clear signal from the authorities, immigrants will not take an active part in the life of the city.

"The Geneva authorities are happy to call this an international city, but that's not backed up by their policies," Salerno says. "There is no administrative structure or policies for welcoming and integrating foreign citizens."

"We have to change the old policies, which discriminated against foreigners, and begin a more open debate," she says.

The draft law proposes a new system whereby all newcomers, not just foreigners, can be welcomed to the city and informed about housing, schools and their rights.

Many foreigners in Geneva cannot speak French and know nothing about the city. The CCSI has spoken in the past of a kind of "silent apartheid" in Geneva, in which almost half the population is excluded from the political life of the city.

In the city there are chic ghettos for the foreign employees of the international organisations and multinationals, and other less fashionable areas for less privileged foreigners.

"It's not just a question of integrating foreigners into the Geneva system, but of partnerships between two entities," Salerno says.

"Swiss citizens need to find out what it means to live with very different cultures, and foreigners need to have the means to being more active in society. It would be a system that would promote a new kind of citizenship for both groups," she adds.

Much of the problem is at federal level. The lack of a coherent approach to the question of integration was highlighted by the crisis between the Federal Aliens Commission and the Federal Aliens Office. not least because of the commission's perceived lack of autonomy

The government was also criticized for only granting just SFr 10 million for integration projects throughout Switzerland.

It is felt that many foreigners also suffer in education and employment. In some cantons, more than a third of a primary school may be foreign, but only 10 per cent of university entrants are non-Swiss.

Only two Swiss cantons have granted foreigners the right to vote at cantonal level, or to stand for election, and Switzerland is seen as the hardest country in Europe in which to be naturalised.

"More than 40 per cent of the foreigners in Switzerland have been here for more than 30 years. It's a strange definition of foreign. In any other country they would be citizens," said Sandrine Salerno.

"The debate we have in Switzerland is very much focussed on particular issues - like the minority of foreigners who abuse the system. The people take their lead from the politicians, and when you have such restrictive laws and no real integration policies, it's easy to understand why 37 per cent of the votes backed the 18 per cent initiative," she says.

"Society is changing, and we have to learn to live together. To do that we have change our policies and changing our mentality," Sandrino says.

by Roy Probert

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