A survey carried out by the justice ministry has revealed that the majority of Swiss people are in favour of putting a cap on the number of foreigners living in Switzerland.
The poll on limiting the number of foreigners to 18 per cent was carried out ahead of a nation-wide vote on the issue in September.
"If people had to vote now, they would favour this initiative," the justice ministry spokesman, Viktor Schlumpf told swissinfo. Fifty-one per cent of the population approved the measure in the survey, which was published by the mass-circulation Blick newspaper. Only 35 per cent were against.
The justice ministry was anxious to downplay the importance of the poll and indicated they were taking the figures in their stride. The ministry rejected the notion that alarm bells have been sounded.
"There is absolutely no reason for alarm or shock because we expected this result," said Schlumpf. "We know too that people are normally more favourable to initiatives in the early stages of a campaign than at the end. This is because people initially lack information." Schlumpf believes people will change their minds and reject the initiative.
Campaigning in favour and against the initiative is already underway. The justice ministry has said it is working to encourage a "no" outcome.
Those campaigning in favour of an 18 per cent upper limit on foreigners are sceptical about the opinion poll. "It is hard for me to believe this figure. I still think that on September 24 we are going to have a 'no' vote," said Luzi Stamm, the People's Party member of the initiative committee in parliament.
A vote in favour of the ceiling on the number of foreigners in the country could lead to accusations that Switzerland is xenophobic. However, Stamm argues that it is all a question of perception. "It all depends how you sell the outcome of this public vote. If people abroad hear of the very high percentage of foreigners living in Switzerland, then I am sure they will understand that the public wants to have limit of some kind," said Stamm.
"This is a very dangerous initiative," said Rosemarie Simmen who is the president of the Federal Foreigners' Commission. Simmen rejects the notion of a ceiling for foreigners and believes that people wishing to make Switzerland their home should be allowed to stay and given political rights. "Of course there are existing problems, but they are not solvable through such a rigid quota system," she said.
Figures unveiled earlier this week show the proportion of foreign residents in Switzerland stood at 19.3 per cent at the end of April.
The government has been looking at ways of easing the naturalisation laws. The foreign population in Switzerland appears high in relation to some Western countries, because of the difficulties obtaining Swiss citizenship.
by Greg Morsbach and Samantha Tonkin