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Nationality rows fuel calls for change

The People's Party organised a discussion evening with applicants for Swiss citizenship Keystone Archive

The different ways in which Swiss communities carry out the process of naturalisation has stirred controversy recently.

This content was published on December 2, 2001 - 16:17

Traditionally, foreigners applying for Swiss citizenship do so through their local communities, which make the final decision.

This means that the system for granting citizenship can vary from one town to another.

Although some basic regulations, such as the requirement to have lived 12 years in Switzerland, apply across the country, towns and villages are then relatively free to introduce other criteria.

The town of Emmen in canton Lucerne is the most notorious example. There, following an initiative from the local branch of the Swiss People's Party, a system was introduced under which candidates for nationality would have to be approved in a secret ballot of all Emmen's voters.

Balkan applicants rejected

When the new system came into force, applicants from the Balkans were systematically rejected, most famously in March 2000, when 48 out of 56 candidates had their requests for citizenship turned down.

The case brought international media attention, and international criticism to Emmen, and many local politicians now feel the system has to change.

"We can't have a system where people are voting on other people's futures like this when they don't even know them," said Luzius Hafen, of the Green Party, "it's bound to be unfair."

But Hafen and others accept that it will be hard to back away from a system which has so recently been introduced. Instead the council has tightened up the vetting process for candidates for nationality, in an attempt to reassure voters that those who want to be Swiss really are suitable.

Lots of questions

What this means is that candidates for Swiss citizenship in Emmen now have to undergo three different question-and-answer sessions with the local authorities.

One young man, whose candidacy will be voted on, on December 2, explained the procedure.

"First I went to a meeting with the police," he said, "they asked me who my friends were, and where I went out in the evenings."

"Then I was sent to the town council, where the executive members asked me about Swiss history; they wanted me to tell them when the first constitution was written and so on."

"Finally it was the citizenship committee - they asked me what my motivation was for being Swiss, whether I was just motivated by financial reasons for example."

Excessive scrutiny

The scrutiny seems excessive, and many outside Switzerland wonder why so many personal details need to be revealed. But the process has the support of the mainstream parties in Emmen.

"I know it seems intrusive," said Helga Christina Stalder, of the Christian Democrats, who sits on the local citizenship committee "but really these are mostly just relaxed chats. OK, sometimes we will ask things about William Tell, or ask a candidate to name a local mountain, but really it is all very friendly."

"Above all", continued Stalder, "this process is working. The last time we had a nationality vote, in June of this year, the voters approved everyone. They knew we had checked everyone thoroughly."

But for the candidates, it remains an ordeal. The young man, who has lived in Switzerland since he was six, comes originally from Bosnia. His sister was turned down for citizenship in March 2000, and he now prefers not to be identified by the Swiss media, because of all the controversy surrounding Emmen's nationality system.

But, he says, he hopes that when it comes to the vote, people will try to be fair.

"I've lived in Switzerland nearly all my life," he said, "this is my home, and for me having Swiss citizenship is that last step towards real integration - with a Swiss passport I will truly feel I belong."

Accusations of violence

Unfortunately for him, getting citizenship may be clouded by recent events in Emmen. In September a fight outside a bar led to a Swiss man's death; the other person involved in the fight was Bosnian.

"No one really knows what happened that night," said Luzius Hafen, "but unfortunately the event will be a decisive factor for many voters, who will reject candidates from the Balkans again."

Felix Muri, who is president of the Emmen branch of the Swiss People's Party, agrees that applicants from the Balkans are likely to be made scapegoats.

"I thought we should have postponed this nationality vote for that very reason," said Muri. "Nevertheless the point does need to be made that we have problems with foreigners in Emmen, and above all foreigners from the Balkans. They are more violent."

It is an accusation that candidates like the young man from Bosnia try to reject. "I've never been in trouble in my life," he explained. "But how do I tell that to 17,000 voters who are just going to look at my name on a ballot paper?"

It is the potential unfairness of systems like Emmen's which is fuelling the debate about citizenship in Switzerland. Changes in the law making it easier for long term residents and people born in Switzerland to become Swiss are in the pipeline.

But new legislation would have to be approved in a nationwide referendum, which
means it would not reach the statute books for several years.

by Imogen Foulkes

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