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Zurich votes on state's role in integration

Several cantons offer integration courses for foreigners

(Keystone)

Voters in canton Zurich must decide on Sunday whether to continue to fund language courses for young immigrants.

For some people, adapting to life in Switzerland is a matter for the individual; for others, it is a duty of the state to ensure that immigrants integrate well into Swiss society.

The amount of money involved is not really the issue: SFr6.15 million ($4.7 million) over three years, compared with the canton's overall annual budget of SFr11 billion.

Far more important is the political signal the voters will be giving: is integration a purely personal matter or should the state be making an active contribution to the process?

In February, the cantonal parliament agreed by 111 votes to 55 to support the cantonal authorities' policy of paying part of the cost of induction courses for young immigrants over the next three years.

As in 2002, the rightwing Swiss People's Party and the Taxpayers' League, an organisation closely related to that party, opposed parliament's decision, launching a referendum campaign and collecting the signatures needed to force a popular vote on the issue.

Three years ago, the citizens of Zurich said "yes" to the funding, but only by 600 votes.

In Zurich, induction courses of this kind have been going on since the early 1980s. Then, in 1995, the canton lent its support to the initiatives previously undertaken by the municipal authorities of Zurich and Winterthur.

The courses, which are optional and last one year, are geared to people aged 15-20 who have recently arrived in Switzerland. They are already past the age at which schooling is compulsory.

The students are mainly of foreign origin though the courses are also open to Swiss citizens returning from a long period of residence abroad.

The main aim is to teach a basic knowledge of German. However, there are also courses in mathematics and general cultural studies, with special reference to Switzerland. The cost of running the courses is SFr13,000 per capita per annum.

State duty

"These courses are an important pillar of our system," maintained Fiammetta Jahreiss, a Social Democrat member of the Zurich city council and head of the Zurich branch of the Ecap Foundation, an adult education organisation founded by the Italian CGIL labour union, which has been active in Switzerland since 1970.

"The immigrants who attend these courses have come to Switzerland legally, in many cases to be reunited with their families, and it is in the interests of society as a whole to ensure that they fit in and find employment," she says.

Roger Liebi, a Zurich city counsellor and People's Party candidate for a seat on the executive, does not dispute the usefulness of the courses but maintains that integrating immigrants is not the duty of the state.

"The state should restrict its role to setting the framework conditions for foreigners to come and live in Switzerland," he says.

"Attending language courses is something that foreigners should do at their own expense. If they want to become involved in Swiss society, they can join voluntary organisations within their local community."

Blind eye

Liebi adds: "It is important that immigrants do not take advantage of the Swiss system from the word go, enjoying financial benefits and taking it easy.

"Integration is an issue for the individual. And that is equally true of native Swiss people.When has the state ever used taxpayers' money to fund courses for German-speaking Swiss who go to live in the French-speaking part of the country?"

Fiammetta Jahreiss thinks viewing the problem in this way amounts to turning a blind eye to reality.

"I find it hard to believe that immigrants would bring their children to Switzerland just because there is the opportunity for them to attend induction courses," she says.

"One of the duties of the state is to give everyone the opportunity to receive a basic education. If the state did nothing, these young people would be unemployed, living on social assistance, or, worse, they might turn to crime, given their lack of prospects."

Finances

Such negative outcomes would be far more expensive for the taxpayer.

Young people on social assistance receive SFr7,140-SFr11,500 a year, to which must be added the costs of training and finding them accommodation.

To keep someone in a young offenders' institution, on the other hand, costs SFr100,000-SFr200,000 a year.

Jahreiss says state support for a year's language courses is simply a pragmatic policy.

"Because the courses are voluntary, the young people who participate are motivated: they want to work hard and become part of the society in which they are living. I think it makes sense to provide for them in this way, rather than leave them on the streets."

swissinfo, Daniele Mariani

Key facts

Roughly 300 students attend the induction courses organised by canton Zurich each year.
It is estimated that after a year's study three-quarters of them go on to further training or find a job.
The cost per head amounts to SFr13,000 a year, virtually the same as the cost of educating a pupil for a year at upper-secondary level.
The canton pays half of the amount (approx. SFr2 million a year), the municipalities 26%, the Confederation 15%, and the remaining 9% (SFr1,200 per student) is borne by the parents.

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In brief

On November 27, voters in canton Zurich will vote on the granting of SFr6.15 million over three years to fund induction courses for young immigrants who have recently arrived in Switzerland.

The courses are optional, last one year and focus on the teaching of basic German.

They are open to people aged 15-20 who have a residence permit. The courses are also available for Swiss people returning after a long period abroad.

The funding is opposed by the Swiss People's Party and the Taxpayers' League.

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