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Swiss naturalisation practices in the spotlight

The manner in which Swiss nationality is granted to foreigners has come under attack, in the wake of a controversial practice introduced in the industrial town of Emmenbrücke.

This content was published on March 8, 2000 - 12:46

The manner in which Swiss nationality is granted to foreigners has come under attack, in the wake of a controversial practice introduced in the industrial town of Emmenbrücke. Swiss residents of the town will vote on individual applicants, after consulting details of their lifestyle and background in a special brochure (see picture).

Switzerland has the highest population of foreigners in Europe: 1.4 million out of a population of 7 million - almost 20 per cent. Many were invited to make up for labour shortages in the 1960s and 70s, and many of those who have stayed would like Swiss nationality. But who should get a Swiss passport is the subject of controversy.

The debate has grown louder because of the case of Emmenbrücke, in canton Lucerne, which has a foreign population of 30 per cent. Many of these were recruited by Emmenbrücke's factories, they have lived and worked there for 20 or 30 years and now they - and their children - would like to take that last step towards integration, and become Swiss.

Getting Swiss nationality is not so easy though; you have to live here for at least 12 years before you can apply. But, the decision is made by your local town or village.

"It's an interesting system," says Rosemarie Simmen, president of the federal commission on foreigners. "Many Swiss feel they are citizens of their town first, and of Switzerland second. It's completely different in France for example, where you are most certainly French first."

In Emmenbrücke, as in most other Swiss communities, the nationality committee of the town council used to check applications for Swiss nationality, and make a recommendation on approval or rejection to the council and to the people. But, voters in Emmenbrücke now want a greater say themselves; and have backed a motion from the town's right wing political parties to put all applications for nationality before the voters in a secret ballot.

On March 12, 56 nationality applications will be decided on in this way. Emmenbrücke's town council has published a controversial brochure, aimed at giving voters some information about the individuals who want to be Swiss. In the brochure there is a photograph of each person, complete with job, salary, tax status, and even hobbies. The brochure has been distributed free to every voter in town.

"I feel debased," says Sanela Kozarac, a Bosnian national applying for Swiss citizenship. "They've got everything there except my shoe size." Kozarac, who works as a medical assistant, is 21 and has lived in switzerland since she was a small child. She has Bosnian nationality although when she left her country it was a very different place, still part of Yugoslavia.

"I don't feel at home there," she said, "this is my home." But, she added "If I don't get Swiss nationality this time, I won't apply again. I couldn't go through this public humiliation again."

Kurt Portmann, who is president of the Emmenbrücke branch of the Swiss People's Party, has no sympathy for people like Kozarac. "Personally I would have liked more details in the brochure," he says. "The people of Emmenbrücke have a right to know these things."

Unfortunately for Kozarac and the others in the brochure who come from the former Yugoslavia, their applications for nationality seem likely to be rejected however nice their pictures are, and however promising their details.

Portmann doesn't bother to hide his dislike of people from the Balkans. "Foreigners who are prepared to work hard are entitled to hospitality," he says, "but that doesn't give them a right to a Swiss passport. And these people (from the Balkans) are much more prone to violence and crime than the Swiss - 20 years I could leave my house unlocked. Now I wouldn't dream of it."

It's true that there have been some high profile crimes in Switzerland committed by people from the former Yugoslavia. Most recently a Swiss man in Dulliken was shot dead by another man, ironically also Swiss, but originally from Bosnia-Herzegovina. The perpetrators of these crimes may be in a minority, but their acts have made many Swiss reluctant to offer a welcome in their neighbourhood to people from the Balkans.

"I'm very worried that the people applying for nationality in Emmenbrücke will be scapegoats," says Marianne Bucher of Emmenbrücke's resident's committee. "I don't think anyone from the former Yugoslavia will be approved. And the worst of it is, these are the very people who have been here longest, who are the most integrated: these are the ones we need to help us with integration."

What seems to have escaped some voters' notice is that, even if they do reject the people they consider undesirable, all these people will stay in Switzerland anyway. They have permanent residency rights, they have jobs in Switzerland, and most have been here well over 10 years.

The danger lies in another direction; if voters in Emmenbrücke reject people who were actually until now very well-disposed towards Switzerland and the Swiss, it could cause serious problems for integration in the future.

As one Macedonian man in canton Fribourg said, after having his application for Swiss nationality rejected, "In all my 25 years in Switzerland I never felt like a foreigner, but now, I do."

By Imogen Foulkes

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