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Language to play key role in new immigration law

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12:12 CET+01:00

Non-EU workers and their relatives will have to prove knowledge of one of Switzerland's national languages if they want to stay in the country.

Immigration permits for non-European Union citizens will be harder to get in Switzerland, but the country will also have to improve its efforts to integrate the newly arrived. Those are the two main goals of the proposed new Immigration and Integration Act presented on Wednesday by the Federal Council, in agreement with the cantons.

"Switzerland can and should do more," Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga told reporters on Wednesday in Bern.

According to the draft, spouses or children of Swiss or non-Swiss nationals who aspire to reside in the country will have to prove they speak German, French or Italian, or that they have enrolled in a language course to learn one of the languages. This will only apply to citizens coming from outside the European Union, including adult children, with the exception of people who are disabled or illiterate.

"Language plays an absolutely central role in integration," said Sommaruga.

Immigrants from the EU and EFTA cannot be forced to learn a language since this would violate bilateral agreements, even though the Justice Minister said that they should be encouraged.

Other mandatory criteria that will have to be met include respect for the fundamental principles of the Swiss Constitution, respect for public safety and order, as well as a desire to participate in the economic life of the country or receive some sort of training.

Sommaruga said that the new act will be quite specific. It will mention, for example, that speeding motorists, unemployed people who become dependent on welfare, and people who do not respect the equal rights of men and women might see an extension of their residence permit denied.

But if the new law will be stricter for immigrants, it will also be more demanding for the cantons. In order to guarantee that regional administrations have enough resources to integrate the newly arrived, the federal government will allot more money to the cantons: by 2014 they can count on receiving 110 million francs ($119.7 million) each year, instead of the current 86 million ($93.5 million).

Each canton will be required to develop an integration programme that includes orientation sessions to help immigrants, particularly at the beginning of their stay, with orientation sessions. Language courses, counselling centres and professional integration services will also be created.

Special attention will also be given to identifying possible risky situations that could lead to discrimination or social exclusion. Measures will be adopted so that foreign children can attend pre-school on an equal footing with Swiss children.

The draft proposed by the Federal Council also encourages employers to aid in the integration process of their non-Swiss staff and their relatives.

The consultation process for the proposed Immigration and Integration Act will run until March 23rd 2012.

According to some studies, Switzerland has a long way to go before it excels in integrating its 23 percent of foreign-born residents. The 2010 Migration Integration Policy Index (Mipex), led by the British Council and the Migration Policy Group, gave the country 43 out of 100 points, placing it 23rd out of 31 countries.

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