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Last Updated: Monday, 20 September, 2004, 15:59 GMT 16:59 UK
Long road to Swiss citizenship
By Imogen Foulkes
BBC correspondent in Geneva

Swiss voters will go to the polls on 26 September to decide on government proposals to relax the laws on naturalisation.

A poster government encouraging people to vote against government proposals to relax the laws on naturalisation
The Swiss People's Party opposes relaxation of the system
Switzerland has some of the toughest citizenship rules in the world - the power to decide who can be Swiss or not lies with local communities.

Foreign residents typically have to live at least 12 years in the country before they can apply, and they have to pay a fee, which can amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

Furthermore, being born in Switzerland carries no right to be Swiss, the children and even grandchildren of foreign immigrants are not entitled to citizenship.

Reforms proposed

Now the government wants to make things easier. The new law proposes automatic citizenship for third generation immigrants, and an easier naturalistion process for the second generation.

Roland Schaerer, who is head of the government's department of naturalisation, drafted the new proposals. He believes Switzerland's current system no longer works.

A scene from a Swiss school
Growing up in Switzerland is not enough to make one Swiss
"There are seven million people in this country," he explained.

"And 1.5 million are not Swiss. We've got children who were born here, who are growing up just like Swiss children, but feel excluded because they know they won't be able to participate in our democratic process.

"That's not just bad for them, it's bad for our society; a healthy democracy requires that everyone participates."

Desire to vote

Supporters of the changes say that, in Switzerland in particular, denying the vote to such a large section of the population is very unfair.

The Swiss system of direct democracy means that the people vote on just about everything, from the appointment of teachers in the village school to whether the government should cut interest on state pensions.

Swiss horn players
They'll ask me if I can imagine marrying a Swiss boy. Or if I like Swiss music
Fatma Karademir

For young foreigners in Switzerland, the lack of a voice is a source of deep frustration.

Fatma Karademir, who is 23, was born in Switzerland and has never lived anywhere else. But the Swiss authorities say she is Turkish, because her parents emigrated from Turkey over 40 years ago.

"I feel like I am Swiss though," Fatma says. "I went to school here, I speak the language, my friends are Swiss; now I want them to make it official, I want the passport and I want to be able to vote."

Following current Swiss law, Fatma has already applied for citizenship through her local village citizenship committee.

They rejected her, saying she would have to live there another 10 years before they could really judge her suitability to be Swiss.

And she knows that when she does finally appear before the citizenship committee, the fact that she has lived all her life in Switzerland will count less than the answers she will give to the committee's questions.

"They'll ask me if I can imagine marrying a Swiss boy," she explains. "Or if I like Swiss music, or who I'll support if Switzerland play Turkey at football - really stupid questions."

People Power

The right of local communities to judge each and every application for citizenship individually is fiercely defended by many voters, who believe that local people are best placed to decide who is ready to be Swiss, and who is not.

In recent years, the system has led to some rather unfair decisions. In some Swiss towns, applicants with any connection to the Balkans, or to Africa, are regularly rejected, even if they satisfy all the legal requirements for naturalisation.

But the right-wing Swiss People's Party, currently the largest party in parliament, is firmly opposed to any relaxation of the system. Delegates have launched a vitriolic campaign to persuade voters that the government cannot be trusted to decide on citizenship.

Ulrich Schluehr, People's Party member of parliament
Integration means that someone obeys our laws, and that he knows and understands our way of life and accepts that
Ulrich Schluehr, People's Party
The party's posters, portraying hands, many of them black, snatching at Swiss passports, appeal to fear and prejudice among the voters.

The party has also produced mock newspaper articles, claiming that if the laws on citizenship are relaxed, Muslims will soon outnumber Christians in Switzerland.

Television debates on the citizenship issue have produced some bitter arguments, with many participants making it clear that they don't think anyone from former Yugoslavia is fit to be Swiss.

The phrase "It's a different culture", has been a constant refrain. Opponents of the new law claim there are some nationalities which cannot possibly be integrated into the Swiss way of life.

"Integration means that someone obeys our laws, and that he knows and understands our way of life and accepts that," said People's Party member of parliament Ulrich Schluehr.

His fellow member of parliament Jasmin Hutter was quick to clarify what integration meant for her. "You know one of my best friends is Turkish originally," she explained. "But really you'd never know it, she's just like a Swiss person."

Being Swiss is not something special for me, it's a simple fact of who I am
Fatma
For young people like Fatma Karademir, comments like these are depressing signs that the country which is her home is not ready to accept her as a full citizen.

"It's as if they are saying to us, fine, live here, work here, and pay your taxes," she said. "And then after a long time, if we think you are good enough, we'll reward you with a Swiss passport."

"We're all good enough," she continued. "Being Swiss is not something special for me, it's a simple fact of who I am. If they give me the passport it will be a sign that they accept that; that they say 'yes, you do belong'."


SEE ALSO:
Immigrants face Swiss curbs
19 Dec 02  |  Europe
Swiss reject tougher asylum laws
24 Nov 02  |  Europe
Timeline: Switzerland
15 May 04  |  Country profiles


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