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EXPLAINED: Why so many foreigners in Switzerland skip naturalisation?

Helena Bachmann in Geneva
Helena Bachmann in Geneva - [email protected] • 4 May, 2022 Updated Wed 4 May 2022 11:39 CEST
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'If you're going to become Swiss, be sure to wear some flags in your hair' Photo: BORIS HORVAT / AFP

Official data shows that many eligible foreigners don’t apply for Swiss citizenship. Why is this and what can be done to counter this trend?

As anyone who already tried to obtain a Swiss passport knows only too well, Switzerland has very stringent federal, cantonal and communal naturalisation rules — whether through the regular or fast-track naturalisation procedures.

The regulations are so stringent, in fact, that they deter many qualified foreigners from even trying to pursue the process.

Around one in four residents of Switzerland - more than two million people - are foreigners without Swiss citizenship, but only around 40,000 become Swiss each year. 

Even those born in Switzerland and who have never lived anywhere else may not have applied for Swiss citizenship. 

Since February 15th, 2018, foreigners born in Switzerland and whose grandparents already lived here — the so-called ‘third-generation’ — can become naturalised more easily.

However, in a recent report, the Federal Commission for Migration (FKM) said that out of about 25,000 people in this category, only 1,847 received their Swiss passports at the end of 2020.

That’s because “the obstacles to be overcome are so high that the legal requirements are impossible to meet”, the report states. “Thus, it is clear that facilitated naturalisation is not actually easier for the third generation, but rather more difficult”.

This article explains what documentation — often difficult to obtain — is needed for the naturalisation process:

Third generation fast-track naturalisation in Switzerland: What you need to know

The report concluded that “by erecting almost insurmountable obstacles, legislators are accused of wanting to prevent as many people as possible from accessing their political rights”.

While these rules place significant restrictions on who can actually become naturalised, even those who are eligible are, in some cases, reluctant to do so. 

“The bureaucratic hurdles are still too high”, FKM director Walter Leimgruber told 20 Minuten news platform.

“The message is, yes, you can apply for naturalisation, but will you be able to fulfil all the criteria?” 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.

And with a high rejection rate, many people prefer to just give up after the first failed attempt rather than undergo the arduous process again, she added.

READ MORE: Why your Swiss citizenship application might be rejected – and how to avoid it

As for immigrants who are EU nationals,  many feel no need to go through the complicated process as they see no benefit in becoming Swiss — they  face almost no restrictions in Switzerland, apart from the inability to vote, according to Leimgruber.

This means that roughly 25 percent of the population cannot vote in federal or cantonal elections, though a handful of municipalities grant foreigners the right to vote on a communal level. 

What could be done to reverse this trend?

“There should be political will to implement change, which is not the case”, Fibbi said, as no significant steps to make the process truly easier for both third-generation and ‘regular’ immigrants have been introduced to date.

There has, however, been some movement in that direction on the legislative front, with parliamentary commissions debating the issue, Fibbi pointed out.

While Social Democrats have started on this path in 2021, “if there is talk in the parliament about this issue, it means centre and other parties may also be willing to open up and do something about this problem”, Fibbi noted.

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s Social Democrats want to introduce ‘citizenship by birth’

In the end, however, any change in law would have to be accepted by  voters, who may or may not want to see the relaxation of the present rules.

Paradoxically perhaps, those who are most affected by the rules — the aforementioned 25 percent of Switzerland’s population — will not be able to cast their vote.

READ MORE: Naturalisation: How well must I speak a Swiss language for citizenship?

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Helena Bachmann in Geneva 2022/05/04 11:39

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