Swiss government under fire over policy towards foreigners

The government's policy on foreigners is coming under growing criticism, after the justice minister handed responsibility for integrating foreigners over to the office which polices them.

This content was published on January 27, 2000 minutes

The government's policy on foreigners - who make up a fifth of Switzerland's population - is coming under growing criticism. The justice minister, Ruth Metzler, is being urged to rethink plans to place the federal commission on foreigners under the authority of the office responsible for policing them.

The decision two weeks ago prompted 15 of the commission's 29 members, including its long-time president, Fulvio Caccia, to resign. At a news conference in Berne, they denounced the government's decision as unacceptable.

"The move is a step backwards, after 30 years of dialogue," said Francisco Ruiz, the commission's representative for Switzerland's Spanish community.

Antonio Cunha, who represented the Portuguese population, was also critical of Metzler's decision last week. "It showed contempt for the people it was intended to serve, and defies the country's democratic values," he said.

"The government has made a serious political mistake," said Denis Torche, another member of the commission.

The outgoing commission put forward two alternative proposals: to create an integration office, similar to the office for the equality of the sexes; or, as a cheaper measure, to appoint an ombudsman for integration.

The commission's criticisms was supported at a separate meeting organised by the Association of Swiss cities in Berne on Thursday. They also criticised the government's decision to cut its budget for integration from SFr15 million to SFr5 million.

Despite the protests, Metzler has indicated she will stand firm. On Tuesday, she sought to correct what she described as a "misunderstanding". "The Federal Office for Foreigners is not a police body which deals with foreigners, but one which plays an important role in the execution of policy towards foreigners," she said.

She added that the Office had taken over Caccia's commission "to get rid of duplication and to accelerate information where it's necessary".

Almost a fifth of Switzerland's seven million residents are foreigners. This country has traditionally had a significant non-Swiss population, and although its growth has stabilised, there are still popular initiatives seeking to limit immigration.

The first such nationwide referendum in the early seventies almost secured a majority, and since then, the government has been trying to balance the demands of anti-foreigner groups with industry and commerce's desire for more labour.

The commission has been one of the government's instruments to lessen friction between foreign residents and the Swiss.

By Peter Haller

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