EXPLAINED: When can a foreigner be ordered to leave Switzerland?
Being told to leave the country is every foreigner’s worst nightmare, but sometimes it does happen. What situations prompt Swiss authorities to take such a drastic step?
Recent news that an Austrian pensioner who has lived in Switzerland for decades has been reportedly ordered to leave the country after asking what social aid was available to him, raises questions about what criteria Swiss authorities use for expulsions of foreign nationals.
The 63-year-old Austrian is not a criminal, and the only reason for his loss of favour is the fact that he left Switzerland for 10 years and his C permit was downgraded to B during his absence, meaning he lost his residency rights.
So what infractions does a foreigner have to commit to warrant the expulsion order?
In 2017, Switzerland enforced a law allowing it to expel foreign nationals guilty of serious crimes.
These ‘serious crimes’ were defined as “warranting at least a three-year prison sentence, including murder, rape, serious sexual assault, violent acts, armed robbery, as well as drug and people trafficking.”
Interestingly enough, "abuse of the Swiss social security system" was also included under the “serious” crimes category.
Why is social assistance a “crime”?
While the order to expel convicts is understandable from the public security point of view, including welfare benefits under the category of “serious crimes” is another matter.
Though to many people this may seem like a trivial offence, receiving social aid (or even asking for it) can in some cases stand in the way of naturalisation and even lead to a loss of residency rights.
In some cantons, this extends not only to long-term residents, but even to foreign nationals born and raised in Switzerland.
In fact, being dependent on financial assistance could not only cause the denial of residency, but also refusal to grant Swiss citizenship.
That’s because depending on public money to support yourself is not well seen in Switzerland if you are a foreigner; refusal to work is considered by some as an ‘unSwiss’ trait.
What happens if a foreigner is ordered to leave Switzerland but refuses to do so?
He or she has the right to appeal the decision of cantonal authorities to the State Secretariat of Migration (SEM).
If the appeal is rejected, they will be given a date by which they must leave the country. In case they don’t, they will be deported, which means police will take them forcibly to the plane or train leaving for their home country.
According to SEM, “The vast majority of persons ordered to leave Switzerland do so with police escort to the aircraft.”
If resistance is expected, “the person concerned is accompanied by police officers on a scheduled flight to the destination country. If repatriation on a scheduled flight is not possible, SEM can organise a special flight at the request of the cantons.”
After deportation, the foreigner can’t return to Switzerland for five to 15 years — depending on the severity of the crime and other circumstances.
How many foreigners have been deported since the law went into effect?
Data collected from the Federal Statistical Office indicates that from 2017 to 2021, the deportation rate for foreign offenders has averaged around 60 percent – in other words, 60 percent of foreign criminals who could be legally deported because their crimes are serious enough are actually sent home.
However, this figure varies greatly from one canton to another. Geneva, for instance, expels the highest number of criminal foreigners — 77 percent.
The rate of deportations also exceeds the national average of 59.7 percent in Basel-Country (72.7), Bern (66.7), and Vaud (62.3).
On the other hand, the lowest rate of deportations (27.6) is in Neuchâtel, with Valais (37.8), Fribourg (45.4), and Thurgau (53.9) falling below the national average as well.
Why is there such a disparity among the cantons?
The current law gives judges some “elbow room” in this matter, including those who come from a country that does not take back its nationals.
Can foreign-born Swiss citizen be asked to leave or deported?
Once they become naturalised, the law doesn’t distinguish between citizens who are born in Switzerland or abroad.
If, say, you were born in Italy, became naturalised, and committed a crime, you will serve your sentence in a Swiss jail and remain in Switzerland after your release, rather than be sent back to Italy – even if you are a dual national.
The only exception is if you are a dual national and are stripped of your citizenship after being convicted for war crimes, terrorism, or treason.
The reason is that dual nationals can have their Swiss citizenship revoked if their conduct is seriously detrimental to Switzerland’s interests — as terrorism or treason would be.
Between 1940 and 1947, 80 Swiss nationals were deprived of their citizenship because they collaborated with the Nazis.
More recently, in 2019, a Turkish-Swiss dual national lost his Swiss citizenship after being convicted by the Federal Criminal Court for being a member of Islamic State (ISIS).
The last such case, in 2020, involves a woman who was born and raised in Geneva but also has a French passport in addition to a Swiss one. She took her two young daughters to live in the ISIS enclave in Syria without the knowledge of their respective fathers.
In both these cases, authorities revoked their citizenship, banning them from returning to Switzerland and possibly posing a security threat within the country.
Whatever the reason for withdrawing the citizenship, it can only be done if the person has a second nationality. Otherwise, Switzerland would create stateless people, an act prohibited by international law.