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3.7.2012 | Von:
Noemi Carrel

Migration Policy

The Liberal Migration Policy of the Young Federal State

With the founding of the Swiss federal state in 1848, a phase of liberal migration policy began. The Swiss gained the right to settle anywhere in the country. In order to control cross-border migration, Switzerland concluded treaties on establishment with 21 countries up until 1914.[1]

Every citizen of the contracting states was granted freedom of movement based on the principle of reciprocity. Although these treaties initially were meant to ensure in particular the legal safeguarding of the status of Swiss emigrants, they ultimately created the legal framework for the immigration of foreigners which began in the 20th century.[2]

Control of Immigration in the Interwar Years Since the First World War these treaties on establishment have constantly been downgraded. In 1917 the ‘Regulation on Border Police and the Control of Foreigners’ (Verordnung über die Grenzpolizei und die Kontrolle der Ausländer) established the law on aliens, which was intended to enable effective border controls. As a result, entitlement to admission and establishment could no longer be derived from the international treaties. These developments initiated a restrictive immigration policy.

In 1931 the ‘Swiss Federal Law on the Temporary and Permanent Residence of Foreign Nationals’ (Bundesgesetz über Aufenthalt und Niederlassung der Ausländer - ANAG) came into effect. Until 2008 this act formed the legal basis of Swiss policy on aliens. As a result of this law, three residential categories were established for foreigners: seasonal workers, one-year residents, and long-stay residents. In contrast to the situation in other countries, the work permit was an essential part of the residence permit. A residence permit was only granted to a foreigner if no domestic workers were available.[3]

Open Immigration Policy and the Restrictive Policy on Foreigners after the Second World War

After the Second World War, the Swiss economy experienced a rapid upswing and became heavily reliant on new laborers. At the same time, fear of a recession was considerable. Immigration policy was intended, on the one hand, to ensure the recruitment of a sufficient number of foreign workers while, on the other, it was aimed at preventing their permanent establishment in Switzerland. Consequently, from the standpoint of immigration policy the idea of a so-called ‘rotation model’ was pursued. Foreign workers who had been recruited were accordingly only granted a temporary residence permit. The restriction on the length of stay was also meant to counteract ‘foreign infiltration’ (Überfremdung) [4],which was felt to be a threat, since it was assumed that female and male foreigners who only resided in Switzerland temporarily would have less influence on ‘Swiss culture’ than long-term residents.[5]

As part of this rotation policy, many ‘guest workers’ were recruited. At the centre was the recruitment agreement concluded with Italy in 1948. But there was also recruitment from other countries such as the Federal Republic of Germany, Yugoslavia, Austria and later Spain.[6]

Restrictive Immigration Policy and Internal Opening

Although Switzerland was still economically dependent on workers from abroad, beginning in the mid-1960s more stringent immigration requirements were intended to slow down the rate of labor migration. This turning point in immigration policy resulted on the one hand from the growing criticism of the rotation model from those voices that were afraid of an ‘overheating of the economy’ and, on the other, from the pressure on Swiss policy exerted by increasing xenophobia in the Swiss population.

But criticism of Swiss policy also came from outside the country. Under pressure from Italy, the recruitment agreement between Switzerland and Italy was renewed in 1964, thus establishing better general conditions for Italian ‘guest workers’. The agreement initiated a policy designed to improve the situation of the foreign population within Switzerland.[7]

With the more and more restrictive immigration policy and the beginning of a more open internal policy, the rotation model was finally abandoned in the 1960s. Despite these developments, xenophobic voices gained in strength and the referendum on the ‘Schwarzenbach initiative‘ (1970) and the initiative ‘against the foreign infiltration and overpopulation of Switzerland’ (1974) came about. These demanded a drastic reduction in the size of the foreign population in Switzerland.

Both initiatives did indeed fail but in the face of the existing social tensions, the government took further measures to reduce labor migration. These failed, however, to produce the hoped-for results, and only during the oil price crisis of the early 1970s did the size of the foreign population decline. With the economic upswing in the 1980s, immigration again reached the levels of the 1950s and 1960s. At the same time, the situation of the foreign population in Switzerland changed. An increasing percentage of immigrants now had a permanent residence permit. In addition, female and male foreigners were gradually given access to welfare state benefits. Under these conditions, a significant portion of the foreign population were not forced to leave Switzerland during the economic downturn of the 1990s.[8]

New Paths to the Preferential Treatment of Immigration from EU and EFTA Countries

Beginning in 1991, immigration policy was based on the ‘Three-Circle Model’, which regulated the admission of migrants into the country based on their country of origin. People from EU and EFTA countries belonged to the ‘First Circle’. These individuals were granted facilitated opportunities for immigration. The ‘Second Circle’ was composed of countries for which ‘cultural proximity’ to Switzerland, solid trade and migration relations as well as compliance with human rights had been ascertained (e.g., Canada, the U.S., as well as central and eastern European countries). The immigration of individuals from these countries was, however, restricted as part of a policy of limitation. Migration from other countries (the ‘Third Circle’) was unwanted and was only granted to highly skilled workers in exceptional cases. The criterion of ‘cultural proximity’ points to the debate concerning ‘cultural infiltration’, since at that time especially the ‘cultural distance’ of foreigners was seen as a threat to ‘Swiss distinctiveness’ (Schweizer Eigenart). Criticism of this model, which was finally abandoned in 1998, was directed at this criterion. A dual admission system followed, which continued to privilege migration from the EU and EFTA region while restricting immigration from other countries. The new ‘Federal Act on Foreign Nationals’ (Bundesgesetz über die Ausländerinnen und Ausländer; German acronym: AuG), which came into effect in 2008, confirmed this dual admission system. Since then, migration from third countries has been limited to highly skilled workers and to family reunification.[9]

In addition, various efforts were made to deepen the relations between Switzerland and the European Community (EC) or the EU. In 1992 Swiss voters rejected, however, membership in the European Economic Area (EEA). As a consequence, the application for the opening of negotiations for membership in the EC was frozen. In order nonetheless to ensure participation in the European domestic market, Switzerland negotiated sectoral agreements with the EC. In 2000 Swiss voters approved ‘Bilateral Agreement I’. With this, the agreement on the freedom of movement of citizens from EU-15 and EFTA countries came into effect in 2002.

In 2004 Switzerland and the EU concluded the ‘Bilateral Agreement II’. Finally, in 2005 Swiss voters approved the Schengen and Dublin association agreements as well as the extension of freedom of movement to those ten new member states that had joined the EU in 2004. In 2009 the extension of the agreement on freedom of movement to Bulgaria and Romania was approved in a referendum.[10]


A list of existing treaties on establishment can be found here: http://www.bfm.admin.ch/content/dam/data/migration/rechtsgrundlagen/ weisungen_und_kreisschreiben/weisungen_auslaenderbereich/ rechtsgrundlagen/0-anh1-niederlassungsvertraege-d.pdf (accessed: 3-30-12)
Eriksson (1984), Hoffmann-Nowotny (1985).
Eriksson (1984), Hoffmann-Nowotny (1985).
The term ‘foreign infiltration’ (Überfremdung) is used to express a strong influence of foreigners on Swiss culture and distinctiveness (Schweizer Eigenart) (cf. Piguet 2006).
Eriksson (1984), Hoffmann-Nowotny (1985).
Hoffmann-Nowotny (1985), Piguet (2006).
Piguet (2006).
D’Amato (2001), Piguet (2006).
Piguet (2006), Federal Authorities of the Swiss Confederation.
Swiss Integration Office EDA/EVD, Swiss Federal Chancellery, Swiss Federal Office for Migration.


Zuwanderung, Flucht und Asyl: Aktuelle Themen

Ein Kurzdossier legt komplexe Zusammenhänge aus den Bereichen Zuwanderung, Flucht und Asyl sowie Integration auf einfache und klare Art und Weise dar. Es bietet einen fundierten Einstieg in eine bestimmte Thematik, in dem es den Hintergrund näher beleuchtet und verschiedene Standpunkte wissenschaftlich und kritisch abwägt. Darüber hinaus enthält es Hinweise auf weiterführende Literatur und Internet-Verweise. Dies eröffnet die Möglichkeit, sich eingehender mit der Thematik zu befassen. Unsere Kurzdossiers erscheinen bis zu 6-mal jährlich.

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