Proposal to cut number of foreign residents

Kosovo asylum seekers in Basel: the growing foreign population is making many Swiss uneasy Keystone

The most contentious issue faced by the Swiss on September 24 is whether to cut the number of foreign residents to 18 per cent. The number has risen steadily in recent years and now stands at 1.3 million - 19.3 per cent of the population.

This content was published on September 6, 2000 minutes

The initiative, launched by a local Radical Party politician from Aargau, Philipp Müller, seeks to reduce the number of foreigners to the 1994 level when the initiative was launched. It was formally presented to the federal authorities in 1995 after collecting the signatures needed for a nationwide vote.

It is not the first time a similar vote has been held in Switzerland. Six moves to curb the level of foreigners have been launched since 1970 but all have failed at the ballot box.

The latest move aroused considerable controversy. Opponents said it would harm the Swiss economy and damage Switzerland's image abroad. But supporters want to stem the flow of foreigners - or particular categories of foreigners, prevent the over-population of Switzerland and cut back on the number of poorly qualified workers.

Switzerland has proportionally the largest foreign population of any European country. While 19 per cent of the inhabitants don't hold Swiss citizenship, in Germany the figure is nine per cent, Britain (eight) Spain ( two). But at the same time, Switzerland has some of the toughest naturalisation procedures.

The "18 per cent initiative" would lead to a new way of counting foreigners. The total would include most categories of foreign residents, but would leave out highly qualified people, such as those involved in science and technology, or management positions. Students and foreign artists would also not be counted.

However, asylum seekers, people forced from their homes through conflict, and those people taken in for humanitarian reasons would be counted among the 18 per cent if they remained in Switzerland for more than a year.

The government, big business and the main political parties came out clearly against the measure - the only exception being the right-wing People's Party which was divided between its more big business orientated executive and the rank-and-file.

One of the most prevalent arguments against the initiative was that it would adversely affect the Swiss economy, heavily dependent on foreign labour for the more menial tasks. One in every three people employed in the hotel and restaurant trade is non Swiss; one in every four construction workers comes from abroad.

The clothing and engineering industries, health care and services sectors also rely heavily on imported labour.

Opponents also argued a reduction in foreigners would not only harm Switzerland's standing abroad but would call into question the bilateral accords Switzerland signed with the European Union which allow for the free movement of people. Supporters of the initiative have denied this.

The initiative was never given much chance of success. Despite being launched by a member of the Radical Party, it only really garnered support from a minority of Radicals and certain sections of the People's Party and the the right-wing Swiss Democrats.

swissinfo with agencies

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