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Integration encouraged amid asylum vote fears

Could schools be part of next year's government funded integration projects?

(Keystone Archive)

A major conference on integration has been taking place in Bern to find ways of promoting understanding between different nationalities and religious groups.

The meeting comes less than three weeks before the Swiss vote on a rightwing proposal to tighten the asylum laws.

More than 200 participants took part in the conference, which was organised by the Federal Commission on Foreigners, the Federal Commission against Racism, and the Federal Refugee Office.

The government is trying to persuade voters to reject the asylum initiative - put forward by the Swiss People's Party - but polls suggest it has so far failed.

In Switzerland, where almost 20 per cent of the population is foreign, the need for integration policies has only recently been realised. The Swiss justice minister, Ruth Metzler told the conference that for many years integration was misguidedly defined as simple conformity on the part of foreigners to the Swiss way of life.

Metzler announced she had earmarked SFr12 million for integration projects in next year's government spending plan. She said she hoped to get her proposal through the parliamentary finance committee intact.

Citizenship very important

Metzler also outlined the government's plans to make it easier for second generation foreigners to get Swiss citizenship. At the moment Switzerland has some of the strictest nationality regulations in Europe, with foreign residents typically having to wait 12 years before they can apply for citizenship.

Not having Swiss nationality excludes foreign residents from even the most basic participation in Swiss life, such as local votes for school committees or road improvements.

"I know we have to have changes in this law," Metzler told swissinfo. "The government has proposed that citizenship should be given earlier to foreigners, and I hope parliament approves the project."

British author Tariq Ali, who was a guest speaker at the conference, also called for a relaxation of the laws on citizenship.

"I think it's shocking that people who have come here, lived here for more than four or five years, who have worked here and paid their taxes, who are part of society, have no say in who rules that society," Ali told swissinfo. "It's inherently undemocratic."

Asylum fears

Many speakers at the conference referred to the upcoming people's initiative on restricting the law on asylum in Switzerland. If approved, the new law would prohibit asylum seekers from filing an application in Switzerland if they had passed through a so-called "safe" country first.

Since Switzerland is surrounded by "safe" countries, the effect would be to limit substantially the number of applications.

Metzler, who has been campaigning on behalf of the government for a 'no' vote in the initiative, admitted she was having trouble convincing voters.

"I do understand that there are real fears," she said. "But people need to understand that approving legislation like this, which will be almost impossible to implement, won't solve any of the problems."

Tariq Ali meanwhile stressed that right across Europe the asylum debate had been exploited by unscrupulous politicians.

"People have been used by politicians," he said. "Their fears instead of being dealt with have been stoked up. They have been encouraged to believe that unless we do something millions and millions of people will come in, and that's crazy actually."

Media responsibility

The conference also spent some time discussing the role of the media in the debate over foreigners and integration, with many participants accusing journalists of consistently portraying foreigners in a negative light.

"We need to emphasise the fact that our society is enriched by the foreign community," said Francis Matthey, who is head of the Federal Commission on Foreigners.

And Ruth Metzler called on all sectors of Swiss society to support integration.

"Integration is for everyone," she said. "It is a challenge for us all, and we should not think of it as one way street, where only one side has to change."

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes


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