Too poor: Swiss-born woman who lost citizenship through marriage must leave country

A Belgian citizen receiving welfare benefits in Switzerland must leave the Alpine country despite having been born there to Swiss parents, a top Swiss court has ruled.

Too poor: Swiss-born woman who lost citizenship through marriage must leave country
The Swiss Federal Administrative Court [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The woman was born in the 1950s. When she was ten, her Swiss parents divorced and her mother married a Belgian man. She and her mother then moved to Belgium.

Under the rules of the time, the mother lost her Swiss citizenship because she did not expressly inform Swiss authorities that she wanted to keep it. Dual nationality, now commonplace in Switzerland, was not made legal in the country until 1992.

READ ALSO: Women refused Swiss citizenship for saying 'ahh' over 200 times in interview

The daughter then also lost her Swiss citizenship in the same manner after she married a Belgian.

When she was 49, the daughter moved back to Switzerland with her own daughter. She based herself in canton Vaud. However, as a single mother, she struggled to find work.


Reader poll: Should this woman and her daughter be allowed to stay in Switzerland?



256,000 francs in welfare benefits

By the end of 2016, she had received welfare payments totalling 265,000 Swiss francs (€242,000), according to the Swiss Federal Administrative Court.

Local authorities then decided, on the basis of her financial situation, not to renew the woman’s residence permit, which had been obtained under EU freedom of movement of rules.These rules allow EU citizens to live in Switzerland as long as they can financially support themselves.

Local authorities also decided not to renew the permit of the daughter, who was by that time an adult.

Cantonal authorities in Vaud then attempted to secure a special ‘hardship’ permit for the two women but this was rejected by the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) in Bern.

No financial stability

The SEM stated the woman had never been financially stable in Switzerland and argued that because she had spent most of her life in Belgium, it would not be difficult for her to return there.

The migration agency also noted that while the woman's daughter had spent most of her life in Switzerland, she had not yet obtained any formal qualifications and was not financially independent.

The woman launched a legal appealed but the Federal Administrative Court has now ruled she and her daughter must leave the country.

Original citizenship 'immaterial'

The court said that the fact that the woman was originally Swiss was immaterial.

Judges recognized that both the woman and her daughter had a strong connection with Switzerland but argued that they had failed to show they were “economically integrated” – a key piece of criteria in terms of any decision to allow them to stay in the country.

The court also said the fact that the mother had now obtained part-time work and that the daughter could now be in line for a financial support for her studies had no bearing on the case.

The ruling can be appealed.

READ ALSO: An essential guide to Swiss work permits

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EXPLAINED: How Zurich has simplified the Swiss citizenship process

Voters in the Swiss canton of Zurich on May 15th approved a proposal to simplify naturalisation requirements for the canton's 350,000 foreigners. Here's what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: How Zurich has simplified the Swiss citizenship process

On May 15th, voters in the Swiss canton of Zurich overwhelmingly approved a proposal to simplify the canton’s naturalisation process for foreigners. 

Several questions were on the ballot, including reduced fees for younger people who pursue Swiss citizenship, longer waiting times for those convicted of criminal offences and a shift towards online naturalisation. A summary of the results can be seen here

For foreigners living in Zurich and wanting to acquire the famous red passport, perhaps the most important question on the ballot was making the requirements uniform on a cantonal basis, rather than allowing them to differ from municipality to municipality, as is the current case. 

Here’s what you need to know. Please note that while Zurich voters approved the changes, as at May 16th they have not been formally implemented. 

‘Uniform basic requirements’ for citizenship flagged

While anyone who is successfully naturalised will get the same famous red passport no matter where they do so, the actual process differs dramatically depending on where you do it. 

The primary naturalisation process takes place at a communal level, which means there can be different requirements from municipality to municipality. 

With 26 cantons, four official languages and century after century of tradition, these traditions and cultural quirks have had plenty of time to ferment and develop. 

As The Local has covered several times before, this includes a knowledge test about specifics in the local commune which often leads to absurd consequences, while in some places local villagers and neighbours will have a say on whether a person should receive citizenship. 

People have been knocked back for a range of reasons, including not liking hiking, not knowing enough about local zoo animals, not knowing enough about cheese and just not being deserving enough.  

READ MORE: The ten most surprising questions on Switzerland’s citizenship exam

Recognising the difficulties, the Swiss government in 2018 revised the Civil Rights Act, which included uniform basic requirements for citizenship. 

The cantons however retain a degree of flexibility when it comes to implementing the rules, which is why they are being put to a vote on May 15th. 

Basic knowledge test

Each naturalisation process includes a basic knowledge test. 

The tests are carried out at a municipal level and vary from place to place, prompting Swiss national broadcaster SRF to report in 2017 that Switzerland “has as many naturalisation procedures as there are municipalities”. 

Zurich, Switzerland’s most populous canton, has 162 municipalities. While it might be a slight exaggeration to say there are 162 unique tests, the questions can vary greatly. 

The May 15th vote standardised the process by establishing a basic knowledge test for the entire canton. 

The test includes 350 questions about Swiss history, tradition, politics and culture, with a focus on Zurich. 

Anyone taking the test will be given 50 questions at random and must answer at least 30 correctly to pass. 

What other requirements were up for a vote on May 15th?

In addition to the above, there are three other changes forecast as part of the new rules. 

People under 18 will face tighter rules for naturalisation if they are found guilty of a crime. 

Referendum: Zurich to vote on lower voting age

According to the new law, juveniles will not be able to apply for naturalisation for two years after a minor crime (i.e. shoplifting, simple bodily harm, property damage) or for five years for major crimes (i.e. robbery, murder, rape). 

The changes will also lay the groundwork for naturalisation processes to take place online. A handful of cantons including Bern and Vaud already do this, but no such online system is established in Zurich. 

Finally, the law will also reduce the cost for younger people to apply for citizenship. 

More information is available here. 

What did the parties say before the vote?

Although polling was minimal, the changes have won widespread support among Swiss political parties. 

All of the major Swiss political parties support the change, with only the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) opposed. 

Writing in the Swiss press, the SVP’s Diego Bonato suggested multicultural Zurich should have tighter naturalisation rules than the rest of the country rather than the other way around to ensure proper integration. 

“The higher the multicultural proportion of the population, the more closely you have to pay attention to naturalisation” 

While the SVP is Switzerland’s largest and most popular political party, it has comparatively lower influence in Zurich. 

The Social Democrats, who hold the mayorship in the city, are in favour of the proposal and hit back at suggestions it did not promote integration. 

“The new citizenship law is shaped by the idea that early and rapid naturalisation promotes integration. However, citizenship should be the the end of successful integration, not the beginning.”

“Foreigners who wish to remain in our country permanently and become part of Swiss society must society, must (still) undergo an integration process lasting several years.”

Who was able to vote?

Much like Switzerland’s men taking until the 1970s to decide whether women should get the vote, it is perhaps a paradox that foreigners’ fates will be put to a vote without their input. 

Only Swiss citizens have the right to vote in the most cases, although there are limited voting rights in some cases at a municipal level in some parts of the country. 

Efforts to provide similar rights in Zurich have continued to stall. 

Around one quarter of Zurich’s population do not have the right to vote, although it can be as high as 50 percent in some municipalities. 

Approximately 1.5 million people live in Zurich. 

More information about voting in Zurich, including details about the upcoming referendum votes, can be found here.