ZURICH • 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 following a spate of sexual assaults by mainly North African migrants on women 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 and 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. Ex-SVP parliamentarian Christoph Moergeli tweeted: "Two dark-skinned men speaking broken German sexually attacked two women in Arbon. Deport criminal foreigners."
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 Mr 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.