Swiss to simplify immigrant citizenship

GENEVA • Swiss voters yesterday approved making it easier for third-generation immigrants to become citizens, dismissing suggestions that the move could pose a security threat.

Projections by broadcaster SRF after polls closed showed the measure easily winning by a 59-41 per cent margin.

The government, as well as most lawmakers and political parties, supports the proposal that would allow the grandchildren of immigrants to skip several steps in the lengthy process of securing a Swiss passport.

But the outcome of yesterday's referendum has been clouded by the far-right nationalist Swiss People's Party (SVP), which put issues of Islam and national identity at the centre of the debate.

Yesterday's referendum was one of four in the year reserved for direct voting on subjects affecting federal as well as local laws and institutions, and the latest in Switzerland's direct democracy system.

The new constitutional amendment simplifies - but does not make automatic - naturalisation for well-integrated people no older than 25 who were born in Switzerland, went to school there for at least five years, share Swiss cultural values, speak a national language and do not depend on state aid.

According to a migration department study, fewer than 25,000 people in the country of about eight million qualify as third-generation immigrants, meaning they have at least one grandparent who was born or has acquired residency in the country. Two-thirds are Italians, followed by those with origins in the Balkans and Turkish nationals.

Debate on the proposal had nothing to do with religion at the outset, said Ms Sophie Guignard of the Institute of Political Science at the University of Bern. It was the SVP, a party repeatedly accused of demonising Islam, that focused on the risks of more Muslims becoming citizens and the possible "loss of Swiss values", she added.

Central to that effort was a widely distributed poster showing a woman staring out from a black niqab, with a tagline urging voters to reject "uncontrolled citizenship".

The SVP is not officially responsible for the poster. It was commissioned by the Committee Against Facilitated Citizenship, which has several SVP members, including those in leadership positions.

Political initiatives that directly or implicitly target Muslims may be on the rise in the West, for example, United States President Donald Trump's travel ban against seven mainly Muslim countries, which was undone in court last week.

But, in Switzerland, such moves are nothing new. The SVP in 2009 successfully persuaded Swiss voters to approve a ban on the construction of new mosque minarets, while religiously charged messages have been a part of multiple referendums on immigration since.

The latest polls from the gfs.bern institute show that 66 per cent of people support easier citizenship for third-generation immigrants, with 31 per cent against and 3 per cent undecided.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2017, with the headline 'Swiss to simplify immigrant citizenship'. Print Edition | Subscribe