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UKRAINE

EXPLAINED: How refugees can receive a Swiss residence permit

With the influx of Ukrainian refugees into Switzerland in recent weeks, a question arises of whether they and other persons seeking asylum are eligible for a permanent residence permit in Switzerland. This is what we know — and don't know — so far.

EXPLAINED: How refugees can receive a Swiss residence permit
It remains to be seen if Ukrainians are allowed to stay permanently in Switzerland. Photo by Pexels

More than 15,000 Ukrainians have fled to Switzerland since the beginning of Russian invasion on February 24th; up to 50,000 are expected to come here by summer.

The expectation of the Swiss government is that these asylum seekers are here temporarily. The reason for this assumption is that the vast majority of refugees are women and children who will want to return to their husbands in Ukraine when the war ends.

But what happens if, for whatever reason, they will opt to remain in Switzerland indefinitely? Could they be granted a permanent residence B permit and, further down the road, a Swiss passport? Are the rules the same as for other refugees seeking naturalisation? 

Here’s what you need to know. 

What is the legal status of refugees in Switzerland? 

Right now people escaping Ukraine are granted a special S status — an identity document authorising a temporary residence in Switzerland, the right to immediate employment, free health care, and language courses.

READ MORE: Switzerland’s special ‘S permit’ visa program: What Ukrainians need to know

This permit is valid for one year, but can be extended.

According to State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), “after five years, persons in need of protection may receive a B residence permit, which is valid until the temporary protection is lifted”.

This means that once the situation in Ukraine is stabilised and deemed safe enough for the refugees to return there, their S or B status (if they already received the latter) will be revoked.

Does this signify that refugees can never apply for permanent residence?

As the S status has never before been activated in Switzerland, there is no clear evidence of what will eventually happen to its recipients.

Generally speaking, however, “recognised refugees are entitled to a residence permit B in the canton in which they are legally residing”, according to a booklet published by SEM.

“This permit is issued for one year but is, as a general rule, renewed as long as the reasons for recognising refugee status subsist. The authorities can issue a residence permit not limited in time (C) to refugees who have resided for ten years in Switzerland, if the integration criteria are met and insofar as there are no grounds for revocation. If the person is well integrated and has a good understanding of the national language spoken in the place of residence, an application for the granting of a settlement permit can be submitted after five years”.

This means that, at least in theory, if the S or B status of refugees – including those from Ukraine – is not revoked, they will be able to apply for permanent residence.

However, it remains to be seen whether (and how) this will work out in practice.

What about citizenship?

Criteria and the process of becoming a Swiss citizen are the same for refugees as for other foreign nationals. They include the length of residence, integration, knowledge of a national language, and respect for Swiss laws and values.

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

Aside from the conditions listed above, applying for social assistance in Switzerland doesn’t bode well in terms of obtaining the citizenship — unless all the money is paid back in full before applying.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How applying for social benefits could see your Swiss work permit cancelled

If it so happens that a Ukrainian refugee is allowed to remain in Switzerland 10 years, without their status being rescinded in the meantime, then they can apply for naturalisation, provided they meet all the criteria listed above.

However, only time will tell whether any Ukrainians will remain in Switzerland long enough to be eligible for permanent residence and citizenship.

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UKRAINE

‘Limited capacity’: How the Swiss right wants to shut out western Ukrainian refugees

With about 51,000 refugees from Ukraine currently in Switzerland, right-wing politicians argue in favour of introducing geographic vetting in regards to who can qualify for Status S, saying Switzerland has "limited capacity" for refugees.

'Limited capacity': How the Swiss right wants to shut out western Ukrainian refugees

After Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, the Federal Council activated, for the first time ever, the ‘S status’ authorising Ukrainians and Ukraine residents fleeing the war to live temporarily in Switzerland.

The special status is initially valid for a year, but can be extended. Anyone who is still in Switzerland after five years receives a B permit.

Included is also the right to work, as well as free health care and language courses. The refugees also have the right to free public transportation, but this perk will end on May 31st, with no word yet whether it will be renewed.

READ MORE: Switzerland’s special ‘S permit’ visa program: What Ukrainians need to know

Now, however, “the great solidarity with refugees from Ukraine is cracking”, according to SonntagsZeitung, which reports that rightwing politicians in Switzerland are “beginning to question our country’s culture of hospitality”.

The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has consistently opposed sanctions on Russia, is calling on the government to limit the S status  only to Ukrainians who come from the eastern part of the country, which is currently most impacted by Russia’s invasion.  

This movement is spearheaded by MP Martina Bircher, who argues that Switzerland is reaching its limits in terms of the number of refugees it can accommodate and support, and it should therefore grant S status only to those fleeing the most conflict-ridden regions of Ukraine, like the eastern part.

Other right-of-centre groups are in favour of this “regionalisation” as well. Andrea Caroni, president of the centre-right Liberal Party, supports the idea of granting the special status based on the geographical evolution of the Ukrainian conflict, saying Switzerland “ultimately has limited capacity” to absorb refugees from Ukraine. 

He said, however, that such a measure “must be coordinated at the European level.”

Not everyone, however, agrees with Bircher’s proposal.

According to Gerhard Pfister, president of the Centre Party, adopting geographical limitations “would create two classes of Ukrainians. This is not right”.

It is unclear how the SVP would seek to draw barriers to distinguish between the east and west of the country. 

As for the Conference of Cantonal Directors of Social Affairs, vice-president Marianne Lienhard said the organisaton will discuss the proposal at its next meeting at the end of May.

Cantons are directly affected by the influx of Ukrainians, as they will eventually bear the cost of supporting the refugees — the cost which is currently borne mostly at a federal level.

The “NZZ am Sonntag” calculated that in 2022, the costs of housing, health insurance, and general support will amount to between 1.25 and 2.25 billion francs. In 2023, these expenses could climb to 7.5 billion.

“Fake” refugees

In an article she wrote for the SVP website, Bircher also argued that some refugees pretending to be Ukrainian actually aren’t.

As an MP from Aargau, she claims that out of 12 people who received the S status in a small town in her canton, only seven were Ukrainian nationals. The other five came from Africa.

Among them are  “Kenyan and Lebanese men who claim to have lived in Ukraine or who actually lived there before the war, but who do not have a Ukrainian passport”.

The S permit scheme does not only provide protection for Ukrainian citizens, but also citizens of other countries who live in Ukraine. 

While reserved predominantly for Ukrainians, the S status has also been occasionally granted to citizens of other countries. 

According to the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), about 1,000 “other” refugees received this status as well, including 238 Russians, and  people from Germany, France, Italy, the United States, Canada and Australia.

In such cases, children have a different passport from their parents, but it is the parents’ nationality and place of residence that defines whether the status is granted.

So it could happen that the parents have Ukrainian passports, while their children are citizens of other nations.

READ MORE: Swiss MPs call for Russian money to be used to reconstruct Ukraine
 

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