Keeping in touch with the Swiss abroad

Peter Sutter says the Swiss in the Middle East have been advised to keep an eye on developments there

The number of Swiss living in Iraq and the surrounding countries is small - ranging from 20 to 100 in each country.

This content was published on March 10, 2003 minutes

But Swiss embassies are staying in touch with those registered to offer assistance if war breaks out.

The largest Swiss community in the Middle East, according to Peter Sutter, the Ambassador for the Swiss Abroad, is in Israel where there are around 10,000 Swiss - 80 per cent of whom hold dual nationality.

"We haven't given any general recommendation for [Swiss] people to leave the Middle East," Sutter told swissinfo. "But we've advised them to follow developments carefully and if they feel it's time for them to leave they should do so.

"There will be a political decision whether to close the embassy [in Baghdad] at a given time, but that hasn't been decided yet," he added.

Sutter, who has been in the job for just over six months, says he has been in touch with several experts for advice on whether a war in Iraq would spill over into neighbouring countries and how it could affect the Swiss living there.

"They more or less agree that we can't exclude the possibility of some sort of spill over," he admits. "But the impact will be very limited."

Global hotspots

The Middle East is not the only part of the world that Sutter is watching closely.

He has also been keeping an eye on developments in Ivory Coast, Venezuela as well as the recent terrorist attacks in Bali - in which three Swiss were killed or injured - and the hostage drama in Moscow.

Sutter says Ivory Coast presents a different scenario to the Middle East because the country is facing internal unrest rather than war from outside.

"In the case of Ivory Coast we have already advised those who have had the opportunity to leave the country to do so," he said.

"There were around 250 Swiss in the country and that has now dropped to 150.

"If the situation gets serious and more people want to leave, we have an arrangement with France to help evacuate them."

Sutter says that no formal agreements exist with other countries to withdraw Swiss citizens from areas of conflict, but there are arrangements in place to coordinate if action needs to be taken quickly.

Political impact

Although there are currently almost 600,000 Swiss living abroad, only around 83,000, or 18 per cent, are actually registered to vote.

Sutter admits that it is difficult to assess the impact they have on nationwide votes or parliamentary elections, as only three cantons - Geneva, Vaud and Lucerne - count votes from the Swiss abroad separately.

But he insists that on some issues they can and do play an important function.

"Look at the closeness of the vote we had last year on asylum," he said. "It's clear that the Swiss abroad played a decisive role."

Proposals by the rightwing Swiss People's Party to tighten the country's asylum laws were defeated by just over 3,000 votes in a nationwide vote last November.

Figures from the three cantons that count votes from the Swiss abroad separately indicated that expatriate Swiss were firmly against the proposals.

Sutter says to find out more about the political habits of its citizens overseas, the Association of the Swiss Abroad together with the GfS Research Institute has launched an online survey of around 10,000 people.

"This will not only allow us to find out more about their voting intentions ahead of this year's parliamentary elections," he said. "It will also make the Swiss [at home] more aware of the importance of the Swiss living abroad and their political attitude."

May vote

With nine separate nationwide votes due to take place on May 18, Sutter admits that it will be just as much of a tough task for the Swiss abroad to follow all the issues as it is for those back home.

Although registered voters will receive the same information as domestic Swiss households, Sutter says they are unlikely to vote on every topic.

"It's a special case that we have so many votes," he says. "And it will be particularly difficult to inform the Swiss abroad completely on every subject.

"But I think generally they will only be interested in two or three issues - certainly not all of them."

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

Key facts

There are almost 600,000 Swiss living abroad and over 70 per cent of them have dual nationality.
Only around 83,000 or 18 per cent take part in nationwide votes in Switzerland.
The largest Swiss community abroad is in France - almost 155,000, followed by the United States and Germany- around 69,000.
Almost 60 per cent of the Swiss abroad live in the European Union.
The largest Swiss community in the Middle East is in Israel - almost 10,000 with 80 per cent holding dual nationality.

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