OPINION: Switzerland can be thankful to 'foreigners' as population nears 9 million mark

Clare O'Dea
Clare O'Dea - [email protected]
OPINION: Switzerland can be thankful to 'foreigners' as population nears 9 million mark
Bern central station in August 2021. Switzerland's population is growing significantly. Photo by Sebastian Meier on Unsplash

The population of Switzerland is on the cusp of hitting nine million and crossing that significant threshold should prompt questions about the future of the country, writes Clare O’Dea.


The landmark number that could be reached before the New Year or early in 2023 is being greeted as a red alert in some quarters. The statistic is a gift for right-wing populists, painting immigration, and by extension immigrants, as the problem.

Because, in a country with a low fertility rate (1.46 births per woman in 2020), the growth is coming from immigration and life longevity. However, concentrating on who should live in Switzerland obscures the more important issue of how we should live. That raises more complex and demanding questions about planning and consumption.

Since 2012, the immigrant population has increased by four percentage points in Switzerland to 25 per cent. But because of the age profile of immigrants, one third of the Swiss workforce are foreigners.

Indeed, the Swiss economic model is based on the easy availability of foreign workers, mainly European Union citizens. This is underpinned by the free movement of people between Switzerland and the EU.   


It's the economy - not immigration

Anyone who genuinely wants to reduce the numbers would probably be wisest to focus on reforming the economic system. That’s the driver. Curbing growth will curb immigration. But there are limits to Swiss innovation, and this hyper-successful country is more tied than most to the established model of constant economic growth. 

Although the nine million number is new, the trend is not. Looking back over the past few decades, it shouldn’t be cause for alarm that 8.9 million inhabitants of Switzerland will enjoy the festive season in 2022. The country is well-practised in catering for an expanding population.

In 1990, only 6.8 million people lived in Switzerland. Two million more people in a little over 30 years seems like a dramatic change, but this substantial growth has been managed quite seamlessly.

In my view, there are three main motivations for trying to put a stop to immigration-related population growth. One is common-or-garden xenophobia, not wanting to share your space with foreigners. “Le bruit et l’odeur”, as Jacques Chirac famously said in 1991.

The other reason for being wary of high immigration would be concerns about social capacity, the fear of overloading public services like schools, transport and healthcare, the scarcity of housing and land. 

The third is about protecting the environment from the impact of more people. Maybe some people are motivated by all three. In an ideal world, and perhaps in Switzerland, good governance should be able to sort out the latter two.

Would anyone want to go back to the Switzerland of 1970?

Population growth with a focus on immigration first became a bone of contention in the 1960s. Disquiet about the presence of foreigners was the backdrop to the Schwarzenbach Initiative in 1970. The anti-immigration initiative was a response to the post-war influx of immigrants, mainly from southern Europe.

These workers were attracted by the post-war economic boom. Many ended up staying for good and, inevitably, they changed Switzerland. Looking at the contribution of that first generation and their descendants, it seems clear that it was a change for the better. Or would anyone like to go back to Switzerland in 1970?

James Schwarzenbach, the Swiss Enoch Powell, used the term Überfremdung (excess of foreignness) in his campaign. His initiative proposed wording in the constitution that would have limited the proportion of immigrants to 10 percent of the population. Effectively that would have meant the deportation of 300,000 people.


Turnout was historically high at 75 percent. The initiative was rejected by 54 percent of voters. Since then, voters have had other opportunities to directly influence immigration policy, including votes on naturalisation.

One outlier in terms of rhetoric was the Ecopop initiative in 2014 that aimed to limit immigration for the sake of the environment. The full title of the initiative was “Stop overpopulation – safeguard our natural environment”, and it sought to limit annual growth to 0.2 per cent of net population.

This proposal was roundly rejected by 74 percent of voters. Confusingly, that was the same year a majority accepted the Swiss People’s Party initiative to curb EU immigration by reintroducing quotas. This plan ultimately turned out to be unworkable and only a watered-down version could be implemented.

Inconveniences of daily life blamed on foreigners

Not to be discouraged, the People’s Party bounced back with another initiative trying to end the free movement of people with the EU in 2020. A yes vote would have triggered the collapse of the whole EU-Swiss package of accords but the result was 61.7 per cent no. 

Returning to our screens in 2023, the next attempt from the People’s Party to target immigration is cloaked in the buzzword of the moment – the “Sustainability Initiative”. It has been hinted that we can expect an “explosive” text.

When it comes to being anti-immigration in Swiss politics, the campaigns don’t really have to come up with a workable proposal. The trick is to make it seem like the complex problem is simple, be seen to try to solve it and then complain that you were thwarted by vested interests.


Meanwhile, the inconveniences of daily life – such as not getting a seat on the train at rush hour or a quick appointment with your doctor, or a viewing of an apartment you want – can be all be blamed on the population being too high because of those pesky foreigners.

Reaching nine million inhabitants is an important moment to take stock. On a global level, Swiss residents have a disproportionately harmful impact on the environment because of their rate of consumption. When you look at demographics, the ageing population is a serious concern, with one in five Swiss residents aged over 65.

As we look to the future, can things be steered in the best possible direction for everyone while doing right by the environment? The key is to look for holistic solutions and not to get distracted by dishonest debates.


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