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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.

A Swiss plane landing in Zurich.
A Swiss plane landing in Zurich. Not all C-permit holders in Switzerland are aware that they have to inform the authorities in advance of any stay abroad that lasts longer than six months. Photo by Pascal Meier on Unsplash

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. 

READ ALSO: When can a foreigner be ordered to leave Switzerland?

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. 

A swiss passport

Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

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. 

READ ALSO: How long can I stay out of Switzerland and keep my residency rights?

‘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.

READ ALSO:  How easy is it to get permanent residency in Switzerland?

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For members


OPINION: Why Switzerland’s new ‘burqa ban’ law serves no real purpose 

Condemned by the United Nations refugee agency as “discriminatory and regrettable”, last year’s vote to outlaw certain face coverings in Switzerland is soon to pass into law. Clare O’Dea explains why the law will help no-one. 

OPINION: Why Switzerland's new 'burqa ban' law serves no real purpose 

A year and a half after the March 2021 vote on face coverings, which was passed by a 51.2 percent majority, the government finally delivered its draft law to parliament for approval last month. Those caught in breach of the law, if approved in its current form, will soon face a fine of 1,000 francs. 

If there was a political award for irony, the vote, known as the ‘burqa ban’ would be the overall winner. At a time when all Swiss residents were covering their faces in public due to Covid, a majority of voters accepted the principle that face coverings should be banned. 

Not all face coverings, mind you, just face coverings worn for criminal or religious reasons. Switzerland does have a minor issue with rampages of masked people at sports events and demonstrations but, taking into account the religious focus of the organisation behind the campaign, the hooligan problem appears to have been tagged on for cynical reasons. 

What the lumping together of the two groups does, accidentally on purpose, is cast Muslims as a threat to security. Even though the supporters of the burqa ban argue that only political Islam or extremists are targeted by their campaign, the Muslim community in general is stigmatised when posters of angry-looking veiled women are found on every street corner. It’s just another way of keeping xenophobia topped up.   

READ ALSO: What impact will the burqa ban have on Switzerland?

Who is the law really aimed at?

It will take time for parliament to agree all the details of the law. The as yet unscheduled debate will provide another platform to the advocates of the ban, who are likely to be dissatisfied with what is seen at this stage as a watered-down version of the law they fought for. Calls to anchor the ban in the criminal code and fine offenders up to 10,000 francs were not heeded by the government. 

Does Switzerland have an issue with Muslim women covering their faces in public? Not if you consider the make-up of the community. Some five percent of the Swiss population is Muslim, most of whom are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from countries where the niqab or burqa are not traditionally worn. 

Ahead of the March 2021 vote, researchers from the University of Lucerne found that fewer than 40 women nationwide wore the niqab (veil covering the face apart from the eyes) and the burqa (which covers the entire body with a screen for the eyes) was not seen in Switzerland. 

The research found that the small number of niqab-wearing women do not fit the stereotype of the poorly-integrated victim forced to hide her face from the world. Niqab wearers were more likely to be well educated or Swiss converts to Islam. 

File photo shows two women wearing a burqa

File photo shows two women wearing full body coverings. Burqas and certain other face concealments will not be allowed in Switzerland under new law. Photo by LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP

The burqa ban initiative took its cue from the canton of Ticino, which introduced a similar law in 2015 following a local vote. At the time, Ticino was welcoming 40,000 middle eastern tourists per year. 

Either the tourists complied with the law or the law wasn’t really being enforced. In the first two years after the ban, charges were brought against only five women wearing veils in Ticino. 

Face covering ban ‘helps no-one’

I don’t know who the winners are here, apart from the companies renting outdoor billboard space. After all the expense and high blood pressure, the signature gathering and heated debate, a problem that never really existed will continue to not really exist. One thing is sure, the state will never earn back its costs in fines. 

For the record, it is worth noting where this campaign came from and who gains from all this publicity. The campaign is a project of the Swiss People’s Party spin-off, the Egerkinger Committee, the same association that delivered the successful minaret ban vote in 2009. 

In its own words, the committee “leads and organises resistance against the claims to power by political Islam in Switzerland”. The association was founded in a hotel in Egerkingen in canton Solothurn from where it took its name (against the wishes of Egerkingen, as it turns out).

Switzerland is not alone in taking a hard line against the strictest version of Islamic dress codes. Neighbouring countries France and Austria, along with three other European countries, have already banned the wearing of the niqab or similar in public. 

READ ALSO: What is Switzerland’s ‘anti-burqa’ initative all about?

There is an uncomfortable alliance between feminists who have long campaigned against religious practices that disproportionately restrict and control the lives of women, and right-wing nativists who would prefer not to have a Muslim population in their country at all. That overlap probably helped to swing the Swiss vote on face coverings. 

Most people who grow up outside an extremely strict Islamic tradition, such as the culture of some Gulf states, feel unease at the idea of women covering their faces in public because they are women. At the same time, they feel unease at telling women how to live their lives. 

This is the grey zone that unnecessary political campaigns like the burqa ban initiative exploit, creating laws that are tricky to enforce and helping no-one.