E.g., 10/04/2023
E.g., 10/04/2023
Switzerland Faces Common European Challenges

Switzerland Faces Common European Challenges

As a small country at the crossroads of Northern and Southern Europe, Switzerland is known for its neutrality, its ethnic and linguistic diversity — German, French, Italian, and Romansch are all national languages — and a decentralized government that makes most laws at the canton, or state, level. Indeed, today each canton is responsible for certain aspects of migration and integration-related policies.

Switzerland has one of the highest immigration rates on the continent. According to the 2000 census, 22.4 percent of the total population of 7.4 million is foreign born, and 20.5 percent, or nearly 1.5 million, are foreigners, defined as persons with a foreign nationality. While Switzerland used to be a destination for employment-seeking French, Germans, and Italians, in the latter half of the 20th century it became home to Eastern European dissidents, Yugoslavian refugees, and asylum seekers from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

Since the 1990s, Switzerland has forged closer ties with the European Union (EU), making it easier for EU citizens to live and work in Switzerland and vice versa. Although it is not part of the EU, Switzerland has had to face many of the same issues as its neighbors, from soaring numbers of asylum applications to integration problems to rising anti-foreigner sentiments. And, like the rest of Europe, Switzerland knows that further immigration will be needed to compensate for the aging population and to ensure economic growth in the future.

Historical Background

Switzerland as a place of refuge dates back 400 years. In the 16th century, thousands of Protestants from France, who were persecuted for their religious beliefs, sought refuge in Swiss cities. Many of these people became members of the cultural, political, and entrepreneurial elite of Switzerland.

The Swiss universities founded in the late-19th century benefited from the arrival of German intellectuals, who fled home when the liberal revolution of 1848-1849 failed. During this period, Switzerland was still predominantly a country of emigration, as approximately 100,000 people, many of whom wanted to make their living as farmers, went to North America, Russia, and other countries.

At the same time that people were leaving Switzerland, the country became a destination for Italians who were recruited for the major infrastructure projects of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, most notably in the railroad sector. These Italian workers, who lived separately from the Swiss, lodged in shacks outside of the villages. Only in a few cases were they allowed to bring their families and to send their children to Catholic Italian schools.

During the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the size of the foreign population across the country also increased: 41 percent of the people in Geneva, 28 percent in Basel, and 29 percent in Zurich were born outside Switzerland. Nationwide, the Germans outnumbered Italians and the French. Most of these immigrants came as craftsmen.

On the eve of World War I, in 1914, 14.7 percent of the population of Switzerland were foreigners, mostly from neighboring countries. Because of the war, the French, Germans, and Italians who had been living and working in Switzerland returned to their countries of origin. By 1941, Switzerland's foreign population had dropped to 5.2 percent.

Until 1925, immigration was mainly the responsibility of the cantons, whose laws had to conform to bilateral agreements signed between Switzerland and other European states. Similar to other agreements from this period in Europe, the Swiss agreements were open towards immigrants because they needed to be sure that Swiss citizens could easily emigrate if they needed to find work.

In 1925, a new article of the constitution gave the federal government the power to address immigration issues on the national level, providing the legal basis for the federal aliens police and the Law on Residence and Settlement of Foreigners, which came into force in 1931. This law allowed the new federal aliens police to make immigration policy, but, at the time, it was much more about maintaining order than regulating migration. Essentially, the authorities had to consider the country's moral and economic interests and the degree of "over-foreignization" in Switzerland (Grad der Überfremdung) in their decisions.

Post-War Labor Migration

Shortly after the end of World War II, in the context of the post-war economic boom, Switzerland signed an agreement with the Italian government to recruit Italian guest workers. They worked mainly in the construction sector, but also in textile and machine factories. Initially, they were entitled to stay for one year, though the contract could be prolonged, which frequently happened. A similar agreement with Spain was signed in 1961.

To make sure the workers would not permanently settle and could be sent home, the residence period required for obtaining a permanent residence permit was increased from five to 10 years, and restrictive conditions on family reunion were adopted. This policy was called the "rotation model" because it meant that new workers could be brought in as others returned home.

As the economic boom continued through the 1960s, the Swiss government's guest-worker system became less tightly controlled. Switzerland faced increasing pressure from Italy to introduce more generous family reunification laws. At the same time, the number of Italian and Spanish workers willing to come to Switzerland decreased as other destinations, such as Germany, Austria, and Scandinavian countries, became more attractive.

Furthermore, the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) introduced standards for family reunification. Other international lawmaking bodies, such as the International Labor Organization (ILO), also pressured the Swiss government into adopting more "humane" family reunification policies.

In response, the government started to replace its "rotation" system with an integration-oriented scheme that facilitated family reunification, made foreign workers more eligible for promotions, and attempted to end labor market segmentation.

Following the oil crisis in 1973, many workers were made redundant and had to leave the country because they did not have adequate unemployment insurance. This allowed Switzerland to "export" its unemployed guest workers. But as the economy recovered, new guest workers arrived not only from Italy, but also from Spain, Portugal, and Turkey.

In the late-1970s, the government gave seasonal workers many of the same rights as guest workers who came on longer contracts, namely the ability to transform their seasonal permits into permanent residency and to bring their families. Since the number of issued seasonal permits did not decrease — 130,000 per year on average between 1985 and 1995 — these permits became a gateway for permanent immigration and a means for cheaply supplying labor-intensive sectors of the economy, which would otherwise have been difficult with Switzerland's high wages. Seasonal permits have not been available since 2002.

When the worldwide recession of the early-1990s reached Switzerland, the unskilled and aging guest workers suffered the highest rates of unemployment and had difficulty finding new jobs. This situation led to an unprecedented level of structural unemployment and poverty that Switzerland had not experienced in prior decades.

Asylum Policy

After World War II, the Swiss government recognized that Swiss authorities were responsible for denying admission to many Jewish refugees. The government stressed its willingness to uphold the humanitarian tradition of the country, and, in 1955, signed the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951.

During the next two decades, the country followed a liberal policy of giving sanctuary to refugees from communist countries in Eastern Europe. In 1965, 14,000 Hungarians were allowed to settle permanently after the uprising in 1956, and, in 1968, 12,000 Czechoslovakian nationals came to Switzerland.

These people, who were often well-educated, had little difficulty in obtaining refugee status. The government and the public gave them a warm welcome, not surprising considering the strong anti-communist sentiments during that time period.

In the mid-1970s, the arrival of a few hundred Chilean dissidents who fled Pinochet's regime ignited controversial debates about their asylum worthiness. Between 1979 and 1982, Switzerland offered protection to approximately 8,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian boat people, who were accepted on the basis of yearly quotas. Their subsequent integration process was more difficult than that of previous refugee groups.

All these events spurred the creation of a new federal asylum policy in 1981, which codified the country's relatively generous practices. It defined the rules of the refugee status determination procedure and gave the Confederation the policymaking power, while clearly giving cantons the responsibility of implementing policy. In domains such as welfare, education, and repatriation, the scope of the cantons in making refugee-related decisions was quite large. As a result, there were major policy differences between the cantons.

After 1981, two trends emerged. First, the number of applications, which had been steady at about 1,000 per year during the 1970s, increased exponentially.

Figure 1: Asylum Applications in Switzerland Since 1980
Sources: Historical Statistics of Switzerland (1996) and Swiss Federal Office for Refugees

Secondly, most of the refugees — except for a large number of Polish refugees in 1982 — came from other parts of the world: Turkey, Sri Lanka, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Unlike the anti-communist dissidents, they were not always professionals or university-educated. Some came from rural areas, some had not even finished primary school, while others had university degrees that were not recognized in Europe. In addition, a weak economy made it hard for these non-European refugees to find work.

With more people from outside Europe filing applications, asylum became a sensitive subject in the mid-1980s. In public debates, refugees were called "asylum seekers" or even the derogatory term "asylants" to indicate they did not deserve refugee status.

Because the 1981 law's subsequent revisions created stricter procedures, the government only accepted a decreasing percentage of asylum requests, even from people fleeing civil wars and violence. As a rough indicator for this trend, positive answers to applications averaged 86 percent between 1975 and 1979. That number dropped to an average of 47 percent between 1980 and 1984, then to an average of six percent between 1985 and 1990.

Although asylum recognition rates decreased, many asylum seekers were able to remain in Switzerland under subsidiary protection or for humanitarian reasons. While their rights were restricted during a period of time depending on cantonal decisions — their access to the labor market and welfare were limited, family reunification was not allowed — most granted protection were later able to settle permanently.

In the 1990s, war in the former Yugoslavia prompted a massive influx of asylum seekers from Bosnia and Kosovo, many of whom had family ties in Switzerland because of labor migration since the 1960s. Between 1990 and 2002, Switzerland received a total of 146,587 asylum applications from the war-torn Balkans. About 10,000 people were granted asylum, and 62,000 received temporary or subsidiary protection over the course of several years, according to the Swiss Federal Office for Migration.

The Swiss public became concerned about the increasing numbers of asylum applications, especially because the economy was in recession and unemployment was rising.

The federal government adopted administrative and legal measures to speed up the processing of applications and the implementation of decisions. But after numerous partial revisions, a completely revised asylum law came into force in 1999.

Among many other changes that made the law more restrictive, it introduced new grounds for non-admission to a regular asylum procedure. This means applicants who have stayed illegally in the country prior to their request or who have not submitted travel or identity documents generally are not eligible for the ordinary asylum process.

In addition, the law now allows for collective temporary protection of war refugees. Although the government has never used this provision, Kosovars and Bosnians were given temporary admission.

Most of the asylum seekers from Bosnia and Kosovo had to leave Switzerland after conflicts ended in 1995 and 1999, respectively. Those who returned home, including those who waited several years to do so, benefited from a return program consisting of financial support, construction materials, and support for their home communities.

An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 people from Bosnia and Serbia-Montenegro returned home, either with or without aid from the Swiss government, while approximately 10,000 with refugee status from the former Yugoslavia stayed. There are no reliable figures for how many asylum seekers from Bosnia and Kosovo remained in the country illegally.

Immigrants Numbers Today

The proportion of foreigners in the population has steadily risen since 1950, when 5.9 percent of the people did not have Swiss nationality. By 1970, that number was 15.9 percent, and by the end of 2002, this figure stood at 21.6 percent. Within Europe, only Luxembourg, at 37 percent, has a higher percentage of foreigners.

Switzerland clearly depends on its foreign labor. Immigrants compose 25 percent of the total workforce, 50 percent of hotel and restaurant industry workers, and 33 percent of those in construction.

The distribution of the foreign population according to citizenship (see Table 1) shows the increase in migrants from the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, and non-European countries. Between 1970 and 2000, the number of Italian and Spanish migrants decreased as the number of Yugoslavians, Turks, and Portuguese strongly increased. Sri Lanka, India, and China are the main Asian countries of origin, with most Sri Lankans seeking asylum and most Indians and Chinese coming as students.

Table 1: Evolution of the Foreign Population in Switzerland 1970-2000 by Citizenship
Total number of foreigners 1,080,076 100.0 1,245,432 100.0 1,495,549 100.0
Germany 118,289 11.0 86,197 6.9 112,348 7.5
Austria 44,734 4.1 30,172 2.4 29,849 2.0
France 55,841 5.2 52,715 4.2 62,727 4.2
Italy 583,850 54.1 383,204 30.8 322,203 21.5
Spain 121,239 11.2 124,127 10.0 84,559 5.7
Portugal 3632 0.3 110,312 8.9 142,415 9.5
Former Yugoslavia 24,971 2.3 172,777 13.9 362,403 24.2
Turkey 12,215 1.1 81,655 6.6 83,312 5.6
Other European countries 56,993 5.3 83,721 6.7 99,279 6.6
Africa 5121 0.5 24,768 2.0 49,873 3.3
America (North and South) 18,425 1.7 30,357 2.4 51,124 3.4
Asia 8327 0.8 62,937 5.1 92,145 6.2
Oceania 1063 0.1 1763 0.1 2994 0.2
Unknown 25,376 2.3 727 0.1 318 0.0
Source: Wanner (2004), Swiss Federal Statistical Office (SFSO), Censuses

At the end of 2000, the bulk of the foreign population (men and women) were of working age (see Figure 2). The age structure of the foreign population is shaped like a fir tree, with a large number of children and working-age adults. The proportion of migrants over age 50 is smaller than among the Swiss.

Although there are more men in the foreign population, the number of women entering Switzerland has been increasing since 2000. As a result, the ratio of foreign men to foreign women is becoming more equal.

Not surprisingly, foreign workers collectively remit a large amount of money each year. As early as 1963, a Swiss Committee estimated that remittances totaled 1.5 billion Swiss francs per year (US$1.28 billion at the current exchange rate). According to an estimate by the Swiss national bank, official remittances totaled US$2.4 billion in 2002.

Most money is still remitted to Italy and the former Yugoslavia, but official and unofficial remittances from 29,000 Sri Lankans in 2001 amounted to approximately 1.4 billion Swiss Francs (US$1.2 billion) — about seven percent of Sri Lanka's gross national product.

Figure 2: Age structure of the population of foreign origin in 2000 compared with the age structure of the population of Swiss origin at the same date
Foreigners at birth

Swiss at birth

Migration and the EU

Although Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it has partially joined the liberalized European labor market. In June 2002, the Bilateral Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons between Switzerland and the EU Member States came into force.

This agreement means that EU citizens with a work contract, regardless of their skills or qualifications, can live and work in Switzerland under a quota system that provides 15,000 first-time, long-term residence permits and 115,500 short-term residence permits per year.

In July 2004, individual admission controls on pay and working conditions for EU nationals were abolished, replaced by measures intended to prevent wage dumping that could damage the interests of workers who live in Switzerland. In return, Swiss citizens will not need special permission to live and work in any of the 25 EU Member States.

Between 2008 and 2009, the EU or Switzerland can decide to discontinue this arrangement. But if neither side wants to dissolve the agreement, it will remain in force indefinitely.

As a result of the agreement, Switzerland has seen the number of immigrants coming from EU countries jump from 34,000 in 1997 to 49,800 in 2003, an increase of 46 percent. Most of these EU nationals are from Germany and Portugal, with EU labor migrants most active in finance, trade-related, and service industries. The agreement has also helped increase the number of EU nationals who work in Switzerland and live in a neighboring country.

Non-EU nationals in Switzerland

At the same time that Switzerland made it easier for EU nationals to enter the country, the policies pertaining to third-country nationals became more restrictive.

Employers who want to hire a foreign employee have to apply for authorization at the canton's labor market office, which can issue a work permit if the federal authority has said the economy needs the proposed qualifications.

A permit may only be issued if the wage and employment conditions meet standards and if no qualified domestic or EU worker willing to work under those conditions can be found. Work permits are granted only to executives, specialists, and other highly qualified workers from outside the EU/European Free-Trade Association (EFTA). The permit is initially valid for one year and can be renewed every year indefinitely; after 10 years the person may receive permanent residence.

The number of first-time, year-round, renewable residence permits, which include working rights, is limited to 4,000, and the number of non-renewable, one-year residence permits to 5,000.

In 2000, about 15,500 highly skilled migrants coming from outside the EU/EFTA and North America were living in Switzerland. Of those, 6,700 came from Eastern Europe, 4,000 from Asia, 2,400 from Africa, and 2,400 from Latin America.

Any change of job or profession, as well as a move to another canton, requires approval from the cantonal labor market authority.

Under the current law, it is difficult for a foreigner to come to Switzerland and start a business or be self-employed. This situation could change if the federal government passes a new Aliens Law.


People who have resided in Switzerland for 12 years — the years spent between the completed 10th and 20th years are counted double for this purpose — may apply for naturalization. The Federal Office for Migration examines whether applicants are integrated in the Swiss way of life, are familiar with Swiss customs and traditions, comply with the Swiss rule of law, and do not endanger Switzerland's internal or external security.

In particular, this examination is based on cantonal and communal reports. If the requirements provided by federal law are satisfied, applicants are entitled to obtain a federal naturalization permit from the Federal Aliens Office.

Naturalization proceeds in three stages. Thus the federal naturalization permit only constitutes the Confederation's "green light" for the acquisition of Swiss nationality. The cantons and communities have their own, additional residence requirements that applicants have to satisfy.

Swiss citizenship is only acquired by those applicants who, after obtaining the federal naturalization permit, have also been naturalized by their communities and cantons. As a rule, there is no legally protected right to being naturalized by a community and a canton.

The cantons' criteria, as well as the way in which cantons decide who gets citizenship, vary greatly. For example, in the canton of Nidwalden, applicants must have spent all the generally required 12 years in this canton. In Geneva, two years' residence is sufficient. In addition, the requirements at the communal level can vary greatly within the limits of cantonal legislation.

In three referendums over the last 20 years (1983, 1994, and 2004), Swiss voters have rejected laws that would have made it easier for the children of immigrants to naturalize. The referendum in 2004 would have allowed the Swiss-born grandchild of a foreign resident to automatically gain Swiss citizenship at birth; 51.6 percent of the voters rejected this proposal. The main reason was that an "automatic" naturalization would have eliminated the community's decision-making role, which many Swiss consider an important political process.

Over the last 40 to 50 years, naturalization rates have stayed below the level desired by the federal authorities because many immigrants probably thought they would return to their home countries after working in Switzerland.

In 1992, Switzerland decided to permit dual citizenship. Between 1991 and 2001, the number of naturalizations increased from 8,757 to 37,070. Nationals from the former Yugoslavia, mostly from Kosovo and Bosnia, have been the quickest to naturalize. They have little interest in returning "home" because of the unstable political situation in their country of origin. Also, having Swiss citizenship means they can never be forced to return.

Yet, citizenship is not always necessary for voting in local elections. In several cantons in western Switzerland, foreigners who have lived in the area for many years have the right to vote on the community level and, in a few cantons, even on cantonal matters.


When the Swiss government dropped its "rotation" policy in the early-1960s, it recognized that the alternative could only be a policy of integration. However, the belief — then and now — is that integration takes place naturally in the labor market and in the schools, as well as in associations, labor unions, clubs, churches, neighborhoods, and through other informal networks.

Since the 1970s, the Confederation's main integration policy has been composed of improving the legal status of the immigrants, reuniting families more quickly, and granting immigrants a more secure status.

To facilitate foreigners' integration and to respond to the public's concerns about foreigners, the government established the Federal Commission for Foreigners (FCF) in 1970. The commission, which promotes the coexistence of the foreign and native populations, includes municipalities, communities, cantons, foreigners' organizations, employers and employees, and churches.

The FCF cooperates with cantonal and communal authorities, immigrant services, and immigration actors, such as charities and economic associations. It also publishes opinions and recommendations regarding general issues of migration, and provides testimony when the legislature debates migration-related policy.

The Integration Article, passed in 1999, paved the way for a more proactive federal integration policy; it also strengthened the FCF's role. Since 2001, the government has spent between 10 and 12 million Swiss francs (US$8 million to US$10 million) per year to support integration projects, including language and integration courses and training for integration leaders.

Cantons and larger communities also have their own integration and intercultural cooperation committees and offices, which offer language and integration courses. In many communities, foreigners participate in school boards and, in some cases, the municipal government. Larger communities, with the support of consulates and the local education department, offer courses in immigrant children's native languages and cultures.

Although churches proved to be among the first institutions to promote the coexistence of the Swiss and the foreign population, other organizations have been less interested in the process.

As a result, confidence in the integration potential of schools and the labor market has recently declined, especially since research has shown the discrimination foreigners and their children experience. For example, immigrants' children face disadvantages in their school careers that native Swiss children do not, and foreigners with the same qualifications as Swiss applicants are less likely to be offered a given job.

Anti-Immigrant Politics

Since 1970, Switzerland has held eight popular initiatives (Volksinitiativen) concerning general immigration issues and two relating to asylum policy. While legal referendums concern bills or changes to the constitution voted on in parliament, the popular initiative gives citizens the chance to present new ideas and to put their concerns to other citizens. It is also used by parties outside the government, associations, and interest groups.

Of these eight initiatives, seven intended to curb the presence and rights of foreigners in Switzerland. Although none of these initiatives passed, they have influenced the Swiss migration policy agenda and public opinion on immigration issues. These are in addition to three referendums intended to facilitate naturalization of second- and third-generation migrants, which were rejected.

Over the last two years, anti-immigrant sentiment has increasingly influenced public debate, which has focused on costs of immigration, control, security, and restriction. This sentiment helped the nationalist Swiss Peoples Party (SVP), which depicts asylum seekers as "criminals and drug dealers," win the biggest share of the parliamentary votes in the 2003 general elections.

The SVP's victory upset the traditional system known as the "magic formula," which, since 1959, has distributed power among the four leading political parties. Following the elections, a prominent SVP leader became Minister of Justice and Police, in charge of migration and asylum.

Thus far, the government has approved several of the minister's proposals to deal with the problems of illegal migration, undocumented workers, asylum law abuses, and unsatisfactory international cooperation with regard to the readmission of rejected asylum seekers.

These measures, which parliament still must approve, include requiring valid travel documents from asylum seekers, taking away social security benefits from rejected asylum seekers, and obliging asylum seekers to pay fees if they wish to have their rejected claims reconsidered.

Looking Ahead

Once home to thousands of guest workers from nearby countries in Europe, Switzerland has seen its foreigner population increase and become more diverse in the last 15 years. But that increase, along with rising number of asylum applications through the 1990s, has heightened the country's interest in migration control and migration's costs.

So far, Switzerland has demonstrated its allegiance to Europe by making it easier for EU nationals to live and work in Switzerland while making it difficult for all but the most skilled third-country nationals to enter.

Ideally, new immigration policy would allow the government to respond to the country's long-term economic and demographic needs for high- and low-skilled workers.

But given the political sensitivity of immigration, the influence of the Swiss People's Party, and the power of the Swiss people to vote on migration policy via referendums, Switzerland looks likely to maintain its emphasis on control and costs. Indeed, current parliamentary discussions about revising the Aliens Law from 1931 and the Asylum Law from 1999 will likely lead to new laws focused on these criteria rather than on demographics or economics.


Federal Commission for Foreigners (2001). FCF Annual Report.

Federal Office of Immigration, Integration and Emigration—IMES: Overview of the Swiss Work Permit Legislation. Available online.

Federal Office of Immigration, Integration and Emigration—IMES: Regular Naturalization. Available online.

Federal Office of Immigration, Integration and Emigration—IMES: The Confederation's Integration Promotion Program. Available online.

Ritzmann, H. (dir.) (1996). Historical Statistics of Switzerland, Chronos Verlag, Zürich.

Wanner, Philippe. (2004). “Migration et Intégration – Les étrangères et étrangers en Suisse.”, Swiss Federal Office for Statistics, Neuchâtel.

Meyer Sabino, G. (2003). “Süditalien: Agrarfrage und Emigration.” In: Ernst Halter (ed.), Das Jahrhundert der Italiener in der Schweiz. Offizin, Zürich.

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"Swiss Nationals in the EU: What will change with the Bilateral Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons?" Bern (not dated): Integration Office FDFA/FDEA. Available online.