Moves afoot to raise profile of Swiss expats

Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said Swiss abroad should make their voice heard Philipp Zinniker (ASO)

Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has acknowledged efforts by the Swiss abroad community to push for a greater role in politics.

This content was published on August 21, 2010 - 20:27

She pledged to keep a quality service for the expatriate community despite cuts in public spending.

Calmy-Rey said a working group had invited members of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA) to present its proposals for a specific law to promote and protect the interests of the nearly 700,000 expatriates living around the world.

The proposals include a reform of the election system to the Council of the Swiss Abroad, an assembly made up of about 140 members of Swiss clubs and associations abroad as well as representatives of institutions in Switzerland.

“I welcome proposals to boost the legitimacy of the council,” Calmy-Rey told the annual Swiss abroad congress held in the eastern city of St Gallen over the weekend.

Plans are underway to introduce the direct election of council members by the expatriate community, to replace the appointment of representatives by Swiss clubs.

“As citizens you are entitled to a fair representation of your interests in your homeland. It allows you to claim your rights and make your voice heard with the Swiss authorities,” Calmy-Rey said.

Consulates

She assured delegates at the congress that the foreign ministry would maintain its services for the expatriate community despite pressure to cut public spending.

Calmy-Rey dismissed allegations that the network of Swiss consulates was being dismantled.

She said the closure of individual Swiss consulates was offset by the opening of such offices in other countries, particularly in Asia.

Her ministry is also examining proposals to mandate honorary consuls and Swiss clubs to take over additional tasks to make up for the closure of professional consulates.

“You have a right to a quality service offer,” Calmy-Rey added.

She said new technology and mobile service units could facilitate contact between expatriates and the Swiss authorities.

A round-the-clock telephone hotline and a crisis centre will be set up to deal with an increasing number of emergencies.

Political weight

The congress also heard a round-table debate and various workshops discussing ways to boost the profile of the expatriate community on Switzerland’s political stage and in society.

Plans to create a special law to defend the interest of the Swiss abroad were generally welcomed, while proposals for a special seat in parliament met with scepticism.

There was a broad consensus that more must be done to show that Switzerland benefits from the professional and social activities of “the Swiss in the world”.

Several speakers highlighted the role of expatriates as unofficial ‘ambassadors for Switzerland’ and as valuable sources of information about their host countries.

Benefits

However, parliamentarians cautioned against attempts to quantify the benefits.

It’s not possible to put an exact figure for the value of the presence of the Swiss abroad, it was said.

Experts also warned of the impact of public spending cuts, particularly reducing subsidies for schools and grants for young expats or limiting an adequate information by the media, including the Swiss Review and swissinfo.ch, targeting specifically the expatriate community.

Urs Geiser in St Gallen, swissinfo.ch

SwissCommunity

Saturday saw the official launch of the social network SwissCommunity at the Congress of the Swiss Abroad.

It offers an “exclusive platform for dialogue and service sections for the expat community,” said Ariane Rustichelli of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad.

More than 1,000 people have already applied for registration by Saturday, according to Anton Hofmann of the Mediapark company which designed the SwissCommunity.

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Swiss expat community

According to the foreign ministry, 684,974 Swiss lived abroad in 2009 (+1.3% on 2008), compared with 7.8 million residents in Switzerland.

130,017 expatriates aged over 18 have registered to vote, an increase of 4.5%.

Most expatriates live in France, Germany and the US.

Since 1992 Swiss abroad have had the right to take part in federal votes/elections via mail from abroad.

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