ZURICH (REUTERS) - Switzerland will hold a binding referendum later this month on whether to subject any foreign resident to automatic deportation if convicted of offences running the gamut from murder to breaking the speed limit.
Sentiment in the famously wealthy and orderly Alpine republic has drifted towards the anti-foreigner right as more than 1.1 million migrants have streamed into Europe during the past year, and over a spate of sexual assaults by mainly North African migrants on women partying on New Year's Eve in Germany.
The anti-immigration Swiss People's Party (SVP), which holds about a third of seats in parliament, engineered the referendum by securing the required number of signatures, playing on fears that foreigners may pose growing risks to the Swiss way of life.
The pro-business Free Democrats and liberal-left Social Democrats oppose it, saying the SVP's undertaking is racist, excessive and could damage relations with the European Union.
Switzerland is already trying to rescue treaties with its biggest trading partner after voters in 2014 backed another SVP-sponsored measure stipulating quotas on EU workers.
Foreigners make up one-fourth of the country's 8 million people - but 68 per cent of Switzerland's jail population. Foreigners - from EU states like Italy and Germany but also tens of thousands from the Balkans and Africa - also comprise a large number of those working for big companies in Switzerland. Under the proposed law, foreigners would be automatically deported after completing their sentences, without the right to appeal, both for serious crimes such as murder, rape and armed robbery, and for two lesser offences committed within a 10-year span such as speeding and breaking-and-entering.
"Secondos", as the Swiss refer in a non-derogatory way to Swiss-born but non-citizen children of immigrants, would also face automatic expulsion if convicted of a crime. The SVP's referendum campaigning has pulled no punches. Posters depict a white sheep kicking a black sheep out of Switzerland.
An ex-SVP parliamentarian, Christoph Moergeli, tweeted: "Two dark-skinned men speaking broken German sexually attacked two women in Arbon. Deport criminal foreigners."
Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, the grandfather in the 2015 film "Heidi" who also played Hitler in 2004's Oscar-nominated "Downfall", appears in anti-initiative advertisements.
"Don't trash Switzerland," Ganz urges voters. "Do you want your grandchildren to think you were a racist?"
The SVP initiative will be subjected to the Swiss system of direct democracy on Feb 28. Passage requires a simple majority. Polls suggest supporters of the proposal slightly outnumber opponents, said Claude Longchamp of the GfS research institute.
"If this passes, it will be a vote against large blocs from the political, business and civil establishment," he said.
Swiss business leaders who employ many foreigners broadly oppose the move, noting parliament has already approved reforms to ease deportations for some serious crimes.
Critics say automatic deportations would violate European Convention on Human Rights rules applied to families, as deportees could leave dependent relatives behind, exposing them to financial hardship.
"Denying somebody the opportunity to be questioned or scrutinised to account for personal circumstances before deportation doesn't merely break with our Swiss and European heritage of justice," said former federal judge Niccolo Raselli, leader of the referendum "No" campaign. "It's inhumane."
Within the 28-nation EU, deportations have generally been left to ad hoc judicial decisions and attempts to make them automatic have run into legal obstacles on human rights grounds. This month, the EU advocate general issued a preliminary ruling saying that a non-EU adult foreigner with sole care of a child who is an EU citizen cannot be deported simply because he or she has a criminal record.
The SVP campaign dates to 2010, when voters told the Swiss parliament via another binding referendum to take steps to increase and accelerate expulsions of convicted foreigners. Parliament approved legislation requiring deportation for major crimes but added a "hardship clause" letting judges halt some deportations, in particular of people with Swiss roots.
The SVP initiative goes further, demanding expulsion without judicial review for all foreigners over an expanded catalogue of offences. A hardship clause, its members say, will effectively let too many "dangerous" foreigners stay on.
"Our priorities should be on public safety, not a criminal's circumstances," SVP parliamentary deputy Heinz Brand said. "Our aim isn't to deport as many people as possible, we simply want to send a message that, if they commit a crime, they'll face strict consequences."
Government officials estimate that 10,210 people could have been deported in 2014 had the SVP proposal been in effect. There would be some legal limits to deportations even if the SVP proposal takes force, however. An immigration agency official said whatever the crime committed, no foreigner could be kicked out if they faced the threat of war or persecution in their homeland.
The referendum has drawn the attention of major Swiss-based companies including drugmaker Novartis, two-thirds of whose 13,500 employees in Switzerland are foreign.
"It's understandable that people are concerned," Chief Executive Joe Jimenez said. "At the same time, Switzerland has to think about the policies that made it an incredible country (so) attractive for companies to come here."