How an Italian man’s lack of zoo animal knowledge cost him Swiss citizenship

An Italian man was denied Swiss citizenship because he failed the bear necessities - answering questions about local zoo animals. However a federal court in Switzerland has ruled that decision was unfair in a judgement which will impact future applicants.

How an Italian man's lack of zoo animal knowledge cost him Swiss citizenship
Oh and one more thing, we've got a question for you about bears. Photo: JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER / AFP
The man, who lived in Switzerland for more than 30 years and ran an ice cream business, had applied for Swiss citizenship along with his wife and two children. 

Initially all applications apart from that of his youngest child were refused in 2015 by the Naturalisation Commission in Arth, in the canton of Schwyz.

Then after an appeal in 2018 an administrative court in Schwyz approved the applications of his eldest son and his wife, but again denied the man's application.

He was judged to be not socially and culturally integrated enough to be granted citizenship, pointing out his failure to answer a question about bears and wolves at the local zoo, among other things. 

The man had also been criticised by a member of the Commission for not knowing that bears and wolves shared an enclosure at the local zoo. 

His application also showed “minor deficiencies” in understanding local geography, it emerged. 

As reported by Swiss news site Watson on Wednesday, he also failed to remember the name of the newly built retirement home in the region, while he also got a word wrong in the Swiss national anthem. Instead of singing 'Alphorn', the man said 'Schwyzerhorn'. 

But after appealing once again a federal court announced on Monday that it had ruled against the Commission's decision and ordered it to grant the right of citizenship to the Italian man.

All applications must show a ‘balance’

The court held that it was incorrect for the Commission to deny the man’s application on the basis of these small failings, saying that the goal of the process was to consider a variety of criteria and balance them fairly.

Therefore, where an applicant may fail some areas of the test, their strong performance in other areas should also be considered.

The court said the decision to deny the application had been arbitrary – and that his failure in some areas had been more than compensated by his results in the rest of the exam. 

The man had passed the test of social and civic knowledge, while his economic integration was also not in question. The applicant operated an ice cream business successfully for decades. 

In other words the court rejected the idea that his lack of knowledge of local geography and the animals in the zoo meant ha hadn't culturally integrated sufficiently.

The court also held that a failure to properly pay property tax – which was also noted by the Commission – was a simple error and therefore did not void his application. 

Securing citizenship in Switzerland requires foreigners wait a minimum of ten years before completing a naturalisation process which includes passing an exam.

Applicants for Swiss citizenship must not only show familiarity with Swiss culture but will also be asked several questions relating to the area in which they are applying. 

READ: Would you pass Switzerland's citizenship exam? 

Born and raised in Switzerland – but still not Swiss enough 

Unlike countries such as the United States, being born in Switzerland will not necessarily be enough to grant you citizenship.

As reported previously by The Local, the story of a young woman – born and raised in Switzerland – failing to satisfy the citizenship test made headlines worldwide.

The woman – born to parents from Turkey, who worked locally in a technical profession, speaks fluent Swiss German and is engaged to a Swiss – was denied citizenship.

READ MORE: ‘I pay taxes but have no say in Swiss life': Your views on whether Switzerland should allow all foreigners to vote 

Despite passing the written exam, after an interview with local councillors – an important step in the naturalization process in Switzerland, where the cantons and communes have more say than the federal government – Yilmaz was rejected in her canton of Aargau, because she wasn't “sufficiently integrated,”.

Apparently, Yilmaz had not given satisfactory answers to a set of over 70 questions that the panel asked her, covering everything from her personal life to her job and her knowledge of Swiss mountains.

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There have been a number of similar cases over the years which have included odd outcomes or bizarre questions. 

Member comments

  1. The naturalization process is very strict compared with Australia. There are two types of people in the world. The good and the bad. I think that a country should try to select the good people. I mean more energy should be put in that direction.

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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

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 were 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.