OPINION: Switzerland's rigid residency rules put foreigners at risk
Many long-term foreign residents are under the illusion that they are secure in Switzerland. But their rights can be taken away if they are not aware of strict residency permit rules. And little compassion is shown by authorities, says Clare O’Dea.
Although Switzerland's C permit is perceived as the document of permanent residency, what it actually grants is settled status without a time limit. There are conditions, however. Most worryingly, the right to open-ended residency can be lost if the C permit holder spends six months or longer abroad.
Not all C-permit holders are aware that they have to inform the authorities in advance of any stay abroad that lasts longer than six months. Whether it’s travelling for fun, to look after an elderly relative, to work or to study, they are not free to come and go as they please.
The six months grace period can be extended to four years on application but to apply, you need to know about the six-month rule in the first place. And not enough people do.
Foreign residents who are unaware of the fragility of their residency may think they are just like Swiss citizens – in everything but voting rights. Some, like Georg Andesner, a 63-year-old man with Austrian citizenship who was born in Zurich, unfortunately find out the hard way.
The problem for someone who has been demoted to a B permit is that their canton may seek to have them deported if they fall on hard times. That is what happened to Andesner – twice – following his return to Switzerland after a decade in Germany, as local media reported.
The first time Andesner asked canton Thurgau for social assistance because he couldn’t find work; the second time it was to top up his meagre pension. The canton responded on both occasions with a deportation decision on the grounds that he did not have the financial resources to support himself. The pensioner is now fighting his second legal battle to stay in Switzerland.
The question here is how far Switzerland should take responsibility for the welfare of non-citizens. How long does it take before a person is considered to belong to the community and to be owed a duty of care? It is scary to think that 53 years is not enough.
Switzerland's citizenship laws are 'backwards'
The issue is all the more pointed in Switzerland because it is considered quite normal to live in the country for life without obtaining citizenship. One in four Swiss residents are foreign citizens. In the case of C-permit holders, we are talking about 1.4 million people.
In an interview with Blick newspaper, Andesner was asked why he had never become Swiss. “It felt so normal that it never occurred to me," he said. This is true. It is accepted as a fact of life that so few eligible people apply for Swiss citizenship.
But it’s not normal and it’s not good for social cohesion or individuals’ rights. Unfortunately, naturalisation policy is backwards in Switzerland. Instead of recognising the problem and actively recruiting new citizens, informing people of their eligibility and encouraging them into the family, official Switzerland treats citizenship as a prize that foreigners aren’t necessarily worthy of.
The real prize would be to gain more citizens, people who are already an integral, valuable part of Swiss society and should have a say in how it operates. They should also be able to go through the normal ups and downs of life without worrying about whether they will be kicked out of the country for being a burden.
Cases like Andesner’s arise when the authorities apply the law in a very rigid and uncaring way. If the authorities are not going to show compassion in their interpretation of the rules, then compassion has to be written into the rules.
'Don't take C permit for granted'
In the meantime, shout it from the rooftops: your C Permit is not to be taken for granted. Watch how much time you spend abroad and keep the migration authorities informed.
As a long-term resident, the first time I became aware that I was not entirely secure in Switzerland was in the lead-up to the first vote for the automatic deportation of foreign criminals in 2010. Part of it was the deliberate, somewhat gleeful repetition of the words ‘foreigner’ and ‘criminal’ together on a daily basis. And part of it was the realisation that the two words could be defined very loosely.
Not that I expected to commit a crime but strange things do happen in life. The idea that I would not have an absolute right to stay in my children’s native country was disturbing and that, along with the desire to vote again, spurred me on to eventually apply for Swiss citizenship.
Receiving a C permit after five or 10 years of residency in Switzerland (depending on nationality and whether you have a Swiss spouse) is an important landmark for immigrants. After that, the push and pull factors to move on to the citizenship stage don’t seem to be strong enough to convince everyone.
But this latest case in Thurgau shows that, on an official level, foreign residents are tolerated in Switzerland, rather than welcomed. That tolerance is conditional and can be withdrawn, something foreign residents should not forget.