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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

Why Swiss naturalisation is ‘easier for highly qualified people’

Professional people have an easier path to naturalisation in Switzerland, while experience and country of origin are also important factors. Here's what you need to know.

People walk through the streets of the Swiss capital of Bern
If you want to become Swiss, a good education or set of qualifications is the key factor. Photo by Prateek Mahesh on Unsplash

In principle, foreigners who have lived in Switzerland for at least 10 years, have a permanent residence C permit, speak a national language of the region in which they live, and are socially integrated, can obtain Swiss citizenship.

But in reality, the process is often more subjective and less straight forward.

‘Easier for highly qualified people’

What is clear is that your country of origin and your level of education are the major factors underpinning naturalisation in Switzerland. 

“Naturalisation procedure has become easier for highly qualified people, while the hurdles are now higher than they used to be for the less educated”, Walter Leimgruber, president of the Federal Migration Commission said in an interview with SRF public broadcaster.

Another factor that plays a role is the country of origin. Official statistics for 2020 (figures for 2021 have not yet been released) show that roughly 30 percent of those who have been naturalised that year come from European nations, while only six percent are from Africa, Asia and the Americas. 

Image: Federal Statistical Office

Germany versus Sri Lanka

As an example, SRF cites the canton of Lucerne, where almost twice as many Germans received Swiss citizenship in 2020 than in 2019, while the number of naturalised people from Sri Lanka fell by three quarters.

“Anyone who comes from Africa, Arab countries, or Sri Lanka often has no chance”, according to Felix Kuhn, head of Lucerne’s naturalisation commission.

The effects of this selection process could be problematic in the long term, Leimgruber said.

“This leads to a two-class society. Certain immigrants have found that citizenship remains unattainable and they feel unwelcome. As a result, they become resigned and indifferent” and don’t even try to integrate into Swiss society.

Leimgruber is calling for the naturalisation criteria to become less strict, especially in regards to language exams, as “these tests disadvantage uneducated people”.

READ MORE: How to apply for Swiss citizenship: An essential guide

Facts behind the statistics

However, the SRF report doesn’t go into details about why fewer candidates from outside Europe become naturalised.

That’s because the number of immigrants from third-nations, including from Asian and African countries mentioned in the report, is considerably lower than from EU / EFTA states.

The latter enjoy easier access to Switzerland due to the Free Movement of Persons agreement the country has with the European Union.

Third-country nationals, on the other hand, don’t have these privileges.

Another factor, experience, has also been shown as crucial, particularly in management roles. 

According to an official government site, “only qualified non-EU/EFTA nationals, for example managers, specialists or university graduates with several years of professional experience, may work in Switzerland”. 

For Non-EU/EFTA nationals, however, including people from the UK and US “the number of permits issued is limited”.

And as unskilled and uneducated people from third countries have a much more difficult path to a permanent work / residency permit, their chances of obtaining Swiss citizenship are lower as well.

READ MORE: Nine things you need to know about work permits in Switzerland

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For members

SWISS CITIZENSHIP

Switzerland refuses to make it easier to become Swiss

Switzerland's Federal Council rejected a motion by some MPs to make the process of obtaining Swiss citizenship easier for certain foreigners.

Switzerland refuses to make it easier to become Swiss

In view of the low naturalisation rate in Switzerland, MP Katja Christ from the Green Liberal party has filed a motion asking to revise the minimum length of stay required to obtain Swiss citizenship from 10 to seven years.

Christ also pointed out that the naturalisation process itself, especially on the municipal level, should be revamped.

That is because such a procedure sometimes involves discriminatory decisions by the communal assembly, which are based on the candidate’s origin rather than his or her eligibility for citizenship, she said.

The government responded that any denial of naturalisation believed by the candidate to be unjustified can be appealed.

Another MP, Corina Gredig, also asked to lower the minimum length of stay required by the cantons for naturalisation from the current five to three years, arguing that many people move from one canton before the five-year term.

READ MORE: Which Swiss cantons have the strictest citizenship requirements?

However, on Thursday the Federal Council rejected the motions, saying that a revised legislation on foreigners went into effect in 2019, so fairly recently, and the issues brought up in the two recent motions were already addressed at that time.

During the debates leading up to the new legislation, the parliament refused to reduce the minimum length of stay in Switzerland to eight years and in cantons  three years, authorities said.

The law lays out criteria not only for naturalisation, but also for integration in general, as well as for conditions to receive work permits in Switzerland, which include the need to provide certificates from government-accredited institutions to prove language proficiency.

READ MORE: Work permits: Switzerland introduces new rules for language proficiency certificates

The refusal to lighten up naturalisation requirements comes amid ongoing discussions in Switzerland about how to make this process easier for third-generation foreigners who are eligible to become Swiss.

Unlike many other countries, being born in Switzerland doesn’t automatically mean the person is Swiss.

If their parents were born abroad and still hold foreign passports, a person will not obtain Swiss citizenship at birth. 

Even though they were born in Switzerland and have lived their entire lives in Switzerland, they have the same nationality as their parents and will continue to be considered as foreigners – until and unless they become naturalised.

However, this process is more complex than it seems, as it is unreasonably bureaucratic, requiring proof that is often difficult to obtain.

EXPLAINED: Why so few third-generation Swiss are actually ‘Swiss’?

As a result of these strict conditions, very few third-generation foreigners become Swiss: out of about 25,000 people in this category, only 1,847 received their Swiss passports at the end of 2020 — the last year for which official statistics are available.

“There should be political will to implement change, which is not the case”, Rosita Fibbi, migration sociologist at the Swiss Forum for the Study of Migration and Population at the University of Neuchâtel, told The Local in an interview on May 4th.

“No significant steps to make the process truly easier have been introduced to date”; she added.

The latest Federal Council decision  not to act on the recent motions means no relief is in sight on the naturalisation front.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why so many foreigners in Switzerland skip naturalisation?
 

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