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Eastern European names 'banned' by Swiss bureaucrats

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Eastern European names 'banned' by Swiss bureaucrats
File photo: Rachel Johnson
12:06 CEST+02:00
Obtaining Swiss citizenship after spending many years in Switzerland is a proud moment for many foreign residents in the country. But what if you’re forced to change the spelling of your name in the process?

That’s the inadvertent consequence of an outdated typographic system used by the Swiss civil register, which doesn’t recognize certain special characters including many used in eastern European languages.

As a result, up to 100,000 people who were granted Swiss citizenship between 1990 and 2014 had their names incorrectly inscribed onto the Swiss civil register, reported weekly magazine Das Magazin on Saturday.

The Federal Office of Justice (EJPD)'s uses the Infostar system for the civil register which, according to the EJPC website, does not recognize characters such as ć, so names with those characters “must be converted”. The accent is therefore dropped to become a standard c.

Other characters not recognized by the system include Č, Ř, ş and đ – all common in eastern European languages. However it can cope with characters used in many western European languages, including the Spanish ñ, Danish ø and Swedish å.

This ‘westernization’ of names primarily affects people from eastern European countries including the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Latvia and Lithuania, said the magazine.

The issue was brought to the magazine’s attention by Robert Matešić, a doctor originally from the former Yugoslavia who has lived and worked in Zurich for 12 years.

Speaking to Das Magazin, Matešić said when he received his Swiss naturalization documents his name was spelt Matešic, without the accent on the c.

After correcting the mistake and sending the documents back, he then received a letter saying the special character ć cannot be used by the Swiss electronic civil register and that his name would therefore be inscribed as Matešic.

Responding to the forced change, Matešić told the magazine it “made no sense” to keep one special character and drop the other, and that if necessary he would rather drop both the š and the ć .

“My name would become a genetic hybrid, half-Croatian, half-German,” he said.

However when he asked the civil status office to drop both special characters instead, he was told that was not possible unless he formally applied to change his name – at a cost of 600 francs.

Matešić then wrote to Swiss justice minister Simonetta Sommaruga to request that the Swiss government recognize his real name.

In its response, obtained by news agencies and Das Magazin, the EJPD said it was “impossible” to take into account every special character.

To do so would require not only changing the civil register but police and administrative databases all over the country.

However the EJPD said it “understood the incomprehension” and thanked Matešić for reminding them of the “necessity of defining and adopting measures that correspond to the concrete needs of our citizens”.

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