Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Swiss-German/Schweizerdeutsch, French, Italian, Romansh
Main religions: Christianity (including Roman Catholic 37.3 per cent, Evangelical Christian 24.9 per cent, other Christian denominations 5.8 per cent), Muslim 5.1 per cent, Jewish 0.2 per cent (Federal Statistical Office, 2015)
There are no official estimates on the number of Roma, but Council of Europe figures (2012) suggest a population of around 30,000.
Nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of the population are Swiss-German-speakers, and they comprise most of the business and financial community. Minority language groups include French-speakers (22.7 per cent), Italian-speakers 661,122 (8.1 per cent) and Rhaetians/Romansh-speakers (0.5 per cent) (Federal Statistical Office, 2015).
Although Swiss-German-speakers constitute a numerical majority of the Swiss population – 17 cantons are monolingual in Swiss-German – their language, Schweizerdeutsch, is a minority one among German-speakers generally. Swiss-German-speakers are also a far from homogeneous group, comprising Protestants and Roman Catholics, urban and rural dwellers, upland and lowland communities, and speakers of a range of local dialects and variants. Hence the belief widely held among Swiss that all Swiss are members of minority groups.
Four cantons are French-speaking and three more are bilingual French and German. Italian is spoken in the canton of Ticino. Graubünden canton is trilingual in Romansh, German and Italian.
Switzerland has a high proportion of non-citizens in its population, numbering approximately 2.1 million (or roughly a quarter of the total) in 2015 according to official figures, with some of the largest groups including Germans (300,700), French (123,000), Italians (311,700), Portuguese (267,500), Montenegrins (106,900) and others. The vast majority of foreign residents are from other European countries. Foreign residents are concentrated in the larger cities. Of the approximately 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland, the majority originate from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia. Islam constitutes the second largest religion after Christianity.
Updated May 2020
While Switzerland maintains a strong commitment to international human rights standards on the protection of minorities and against racial discrimination, in recent years increasing levels of anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric have been evident in the public sphere. This is reflected in a number of measures in recent years that have been approved through popular referendum that specifically target minorities and migrants in the country, including a 2009 ban on the construction of minarets. The results were widely condemned and came as a surprise in a country recognized for its traditions of tolerance. Many have attributed support for the ban to popular fears around integration and religious extremism, sentiments that the campaign in favour of the ban exploited through highly inflammatory posters.
Another measure, put forward by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), included a 2014 referendum to impose a cap on immigration through quotas. The proposal, which was narrowly supported by 50.3 per cent of voters, was later amended by the Swiss parliament in order to ensure Switzerland remained in the European Union (EU)’s single market: instead of quotas, the revised immigration law requires employers in sectors with high unemployment to give priority to Swiss job seekers when recruiting for new staff. While the significant public support for curbs on immigration illustrated the growing influence of the SVP and its allies, there appear to be limits to this support. Another referendum in 2018 on an SVP initiative to give Swiss law precedence over its international treaty obligations led to the proposal being roundly defeated.
Though Switzerland is celebrated for having one of the most democratic forms of governance in the world, with regular referendums and strong public participation in decision making, one side effect is that popular votes can sometimes result in outcomes that are far from inclusive. A campaign for a nationwide ban on the burqa and niqab, which attracted the 100,00 signatures necessary for it to be put to public vote in 2017, has so far been resisted by the Federal Council who have instead proposed a series of policies that would punish anyone forcing women against their will to wear face coverings and oblige wearers to show their face to authorities when required. The Swiss government has also suggested that individual cantons, rather than the country as a whole decide on the matter; in September 2018, a majority in the canton of St Gallen voted for all face coverings to be banned in public spaces, following on from a ban two years earlier in the canton of Ticano.
While other referendums have suggested more open attitudes towards minorities and other groups – a national referendum in June 2016, for instance, approved a proposal to reform the country’s Asylum Act to provide free legal assistance to asylum seekers, faster assessment procedures and greater support for the integration of refugees – there has been a rise in right-wing populism and xenophobic rhetoric in mainstream politics and media, particularly in the wake of violent attacks elsewhere Europe. Levels of hate crime have remained relatively static: a peak of 181 recorded incidents in 2015 was followed by 164 recorded incidents in 2016 and 179 recorded incidents in 2017. Nevertheless, a number of racist incidents targeting Muslims and other minorities have occurred, such as the desecration of Muslim graves in Lausanne in 2017.
Xenophobic rhetoric has also been used against Roma, Sinti and Yenish minorities. Traveller communities face significant barriers in securing adequate camping sites and many struggle to access education and language support. Although Switzerland has officially recognized Yenish and Sinti as national minorities, it still has yet to recognise Roma as a minority. An application by two Roma organizations for official recognition as a national minority was rejected by Switzerland’s Federal Council in June 2018, although the Council did say that Roma are an ‘integral part’ of Swiss society.
Updated May 2020
Switzerland is a landlocked country at the crossroads of northern and southern Europe, bordering France, Italy, Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein. There are 26 cantons.
The Swiss alliance dates from 1291, when the three states (cantons) of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden united against their oppressors to form the ‘Everlasting League’. More cantons joined the alliance to secure their freedom over the next centuries. During the Reformation, Switzerland became increasingly polarized between the German-speaking Protestant cities and the French-speaking Roman Catholic countryside. Despite this, the unity of the federation held. During the European conflicts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Switzerland remained neutral. Following the French invasion of 1798 Switzerland became a republic, which was liberated after the fall of Napoleon in 1815. The major powers guaranteed Swiss neutrality at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Three more cantons joined the federation, giving it its present-day borders. After a brief civil war between Protestants and Roman Catholics, Switzerland adopted a federal Constitution in 1848. The 1874 amendments made defence, trade and legal matters federal responsibilities, devolving all other matters to the cantonal governments.
Switzerland maintained its armed neutrality in both world wars. It was a refuge for many political dissidents, also for 25,000 Jews during the Nazi era until 1942, when the Swiss closed their borders to Jews. The support of Swiss banks for the Nazi regime and the German arms industry in the 1930s and 1940s resulted in Switzerland paying war reparations in 1952. Also, Swiss banks claimed there were no records of the money that Jewish families had placed with them for safe-keeping, or of Jewish possessions that were looted by the Nazis, but in 1995 they admitted to holding millions of dollars of Jewish money. From 1999 the banks began to pay compensation to the Jewish heirs.
In 1920 the headquarters of the League of Nations was set up in Geneva. Switzerland was a member of the League but refused to join the United Nations (UN) until 2002. However, several UN agencies set up their headquarters in Geneva from the late 1940s.
There was significant immigration before 1914 because of the industrial revolution and the building of the railways. Foreign workers accounted for 14.7 per cent of the population in 1910 but only 5.2 per cent in 1941 because of the economic depression and tight immigration control. As the economy revived, the government signed guest-worker agreements with Italy, then with Spain, Portugal and Yugoslavia. Contracts were short term. By 1964 employers realized that they needed foreign workers for the longer term. The government adopted integration policies and allowed family members to join the workers. But foreign workers were made redundant and forced to leave in the recessions of 1975 to 1979 and 1983. As the economy revived, guest workers returned, this time from Eastern Europe and Turkey along with refugees from Yugoslavia, the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Switzerland has accepted various waves of political refugees, but with growing alarm as the numbers increased. Between 1990 and 2002 out of the 146,587 asylum applications from refugees of the former Yugoslavia, some 10,000 people were granted asylum, and 62,000 received temporary protection.
From the 1990s Switzerland forged closer ties with the European Union (EU), and right-wing politics strengthened. In October 2003 the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) became the largest party in the federal parliament after winning almost 28 per cent of the vote in general elections. An SVP leader became Minister of Justice and Police, in charge of migration and asylum. A year later a referendum rejected moves to relax the strict naturalization laws. In 2005 Switzerland ratified the open-border Schengen Agreement adopted by several EU states and the EU Dublin Convention whereby asylum seekers can be returned to their first European country of arrival.
In recent years there has been an increase in anti-Muslim and anti-immigration sentiment in Switzerland, reflected in a 2009 referendum that approved a ban on the construction of minarets. This was seen by human rights groups as a breach of religious freedoms and a barrier to the integration of Muslims within Switzerland. Anti-immigration policies have also taken on greater prominence amongst right-wing groups in Swiss politics and media. A referendum in 2014 narrowly passed supporting limits on immigration through quotas, though its terms were subsequently weakened by the government to protect relations with the European Union.
Government is devolved and all legislation can be altered by referendum or by a procedure of citizen initiatives. The 26 cantons are the most important decision-making level in education, welfare, police, immigration and integration policies. They decide what aspects of these policies and the manner in which they should be handled at the federal and community levels. The cantons have responsibility, devolved from the federal level, for collecting taxes.
The 1938 Constitution recognizes four Swiss national languages – German, French, Italian and Romansh – and three official languages – German, French and Italian. In 1996 Romansh became an official language for the canton of Graubünden. The 1996 Constitution also made cultural exchange between the four languages obligatory. The 2004 Law on National Languages further defines the roles of the languages. The 2010 Law on Languages obliges authorities to treat French, Italian and German equally, ensuring official documents are translated into all three languages, while Romansh is also be employed when engaging with Romansh speakers, as well as major publications translated into the language.
The Constitution bans all forms of discrimination based on origin, race, sex, age, language, social position, lifestyle, religious, philosophical and political persuasion, or a person’s physical, mental or psychological state.
However, women’s rights were relatively recently secured. In 1971 women were given the right to vote in federal elections for the first time, and this was extended to the last of the cantons in 1981. In 1985 women gained legal equality with men within marriage.
Swiss nationality is by descent. Foreign citizens can apply for naturalization after 12 years’ residence. Naturalization takes place in three stages, federal, cantonal and municipal. To obtain a federal permit candidates must show that they are integrated into Swiss society, and accept the Swiss way of life and laws. Residence requirements by the canton and municipality vary widely. Some require the full 12 years to be spent in their territory, others less time. Some municipal assemblies vote to accept or reject individual applications for citizenship. In other municipalities, a referendum was required on each application, but the Federal Court ruled against this in 2003. In three referendums, 1983, 1994, and 2004, Swiss voters rejected laws that would have made it easier for the Swiss-born children of immigrants to obtain Swiss nationality From 1992 Switzerland has allowed dual nationality.
The Federal Commission for Foreigners (FCF), composed of municipalities, communities, cantons, foreigners’ organizations, employers and employees, and churches, was set up in 1970 to promote the coexistence of the foreign and native populations. The 1999 Integration Article paved the way for a more proactive federal integration policy and strengthened the FCF’s role. Federal funding is provided for language and integration courses.
The rise of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), beginning in the late 1990s and continuing to this day, represents a worrying trend in the country with regards to the treatment of minorities and the large immigrant population. In the 2007 Swiss elections, the SVP won 29 per cent of the vote, increasing its standing as the largest party in parliament. The SVP was accused of racism after using a campaigning poster entitled ‘kick out the black sheep’, which aimed to promote a policy of deporting foreign citizens who commit crimes. The rise of anti-Muslim sentiment and the xenophobic policies of the SVP were further reflected by a referendum in 2009, which aimed to ban all minarets in the country. An overwhelming 57 per cent of voters voted ‘yes’ in the referendum, which was put forward by the SVP. The advertising campaign that promoted the referendum showed posters depicting burqa-clad women against a backdrop of missile-like minarets. In November 2010, Swiss voters backed an earlier proposal for the automatic expulsion of non-Swiss citizens convicted of certain crimes. Both this proposal and the policy to ban minarets were condemned by human rights groups and foreign governments.
Electoral support for the SVP has continued to increase, fuelled by anti-immigration rhetoric concerning thousands of refugees seeking safety in Europe. The SVP increased their share of the electoral vote to over 29 per cent of the vote in the 2015 nationwide parliamentary elections whereby political campaigning was focussed around immigration. In 2016 a referendum backed by SVP was rejected by voters which would have meant that foreigners were deported for even minor offenses.
Updated May 2020
Swiss Helsinki Committee (Schweizerische Helsinki-Vereinigung)
[Promote the Romansh language and culture]
Updated May 2020
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
Minorities and indigenous peoples in