Meine Merkliste Geteilte Merkliste PDF oder EPUB erstellen

Migration and Migration Policy in Switzerland | Switzerland |

Switzerland Migration and Migration Policy in Switzerland

Migration and Migration Policy in Switzerland

Line Huter

/ 12 Minuten zu lesen

How has migration to Switzerland developed since the 19th century? What are the rough lines of Swiss migration policy? An overview.

Swiss soccer fans celebrate during the live broadcast of the UEFA EURO 2020 soccer match between Spain and Switzerland. In 2019, almost 38 per cent of Switzerland’s permanent resident population aged 15 years or older had a migration background. (© picture-alliance, KEYSTONE | ENNIO LEANZA)

At a glanceData on the population of Switzerland

Capital: Bern
Official languages: German, French, Italian, Rhaeto-Romance
Area: 41,285 km²
Permanent resident population (end of 2019): 8,606,033
Population density (2019): 215.2 inhabitants per km²
Population growth (2019): 0,7% per year
Permanent foreign resident population (1st January 2019): 2,148,275
Immigration (2019): 169,600
Emigration (2019): 126,200
Economically active population (end of 2019): 5,332,000
Employed foreign nationals (2019): 1,615,000
Unemployment rate (2019): 4,4%
Religion (2019): Catholic and Protestant (58%), Evangelic and other Christian communities (7.1%), Islamic communities (5.3%), undenominational (28%)


  1. Federal Statistical Office. (2021) Languages. Externer Link: (accessed: 7.04.21).

  2. Federal Statistical Office. (2020). Territory and environment. Externer Link: (accessed: 7.04.21).

  3. Bundesamt für Statistik. (2019). Bevölkerungsdichte (Gesamtfläche). Externer Link: (accessed: 7.04.21).

  4. Ibid.

  5. Federal Statistical Office. (2020). Population size and change in Switzerland in 2019: definitive figures. Externer Link: (accessed: 7.04.21).

  6. Federal Statistical Office. (2020). Demographic balance of the foreign permanent resident population, 1951-2019. Externer Link: (accessed: 7.04.21).

  7. Federal Statistical Office. (2019). Migration and integration. Externer Link: (accessed: 7.04.21).

  8. Ibid.

  9. Federal Statistical Office. (2020). Dynamics of the economically active population: arrivals, departures, migrations. Externer Link: (accessed: 7.04.21).

  10. Federal Statistical Office. (2019). Work and Income. Externer Link: (accessed: 7.04.21).

  11. Ibid.

  12. Bundesamt für Statistik. (2019). Religion und Spiritualität in der Schweiz im Wandel. Externer Link: (accessed: 2.09.21).

In 2019, almost 38 per cent of Switzerland’s permanent resident population aged 15 years or older had a migration background. Slightly more than a third of this population has the Swiss nationality. More than 80 per cent of the population with migration background was born abroad and thus are first generation immigrants. Most immigrants and their descendants are from EU and EFTA member states, especially from Italy, Germany, Portugal, France, and Kosovo.

Recently, net migration has decreased. In 2018, it reached its lowest level since 2006. This development is not primarily due to the decrease in the number of immigrants – which remained high at 170,000 immigrants in 2018 –, but to the increasing emigration of the permanent resident population which includes Swiss nationals. In 2018, 130,000 permanent Swiss residents – a quarter of whom were Swiss nationals – left the country. The main destination countries for emigrating Swiss nationals are EU and EFTA states – especially France, Germany, Italy and Spain – as well as the USA and the UK. The recent development shows that increasing numbers of Swiss nationals use the free movement right of persons within the EU.

Brief history of emigration from and immigration to Switzerland

International migration of the permanent resident population in Switzerland, 1991-2019 (Interner Link: Download Chart) (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Until the 19th century, Switzerland was a country of emigration. Thereafter, it gradually became a country of immigration. Industrialization spurred immigration especially in the second half of the 19th century. In 1888, for the first time the Swiss census displayed positive net migration in Switzerland. During the First World War, numerous immigrants left Switzerland and returned to their countries of origin. In the interwar period immigration policy, that had until 1925 been mainly the responsibility of the cantons, was centralized at the federal level. The federal government adopted a more restrictive stance on migration which replaced the pre-war liberal policy. Entry visa were introduced and Swiss authorities tightly controlled the number of foreigners present on the national territory. In 1931 the Federal Law on Residence and Settlement in Switzerland entered into force which formed the basis of Swiss policy on foreigners until 2008.

Swiss migration policy

After the Second World War, labour shortages led to the establishment of a bilateral recruitment agreement with Italy in 1948. It marked the beginning of massive immigration flows. Henceforth, Swiss migration policy aimed at recruiting foreign labour due to labour shortages against the backdrop of a booming economy, while at the same time preventing their permanent settlement in Switzerland. A so-called "rotation model" emerged, whereby recruited foreign workers were only allowed to stay in the country on a temporary basis. The introduction of this model also grounded in the fear of foreign infiltration (Überfremdung ). The rotation model was given up in the 1960s, partly because politics and economy came to the conclusion that the demand for foreign labour was not a temporary phenomenon. Migration policy thus started to adopt an approach that aimed at integration and assimilation of immigrants. In the following, a growing number of immigrants benefited from a permanent settlement permit as well as welfare state benefits. Against this backdrop, between 1965 and 1988, a series of initiatives – among them the referendum "Schwarzenbach Initiative" in 1970 and the initiative "against foreign infiltration and overpopulation in Switzerland" in 1974 – called for limiting the number of foreign residents in the country. In the context of the political upheaval caused by the "Schwarzenbach Initiative" the Swiss government adopted a so-called "stabilisation policy" (Globalplafonnierung) which aimed at slowing down immigration by introducing annual immigration quotas and limiting immigrants' rights, e.g. to change jobs and place of residence. In 1974/75 economic recession led to decreasing labour migration. In the beginning of the 1980s, the absolute numbers of foreigners in Switzerland had considerably diminished.

In the 1990s, Switzerland sought closer ties with the EU and started to adopt measures to facilitate immigration from EU member states. In order to balance out concerns of Überfremdung, immigration from other countries was severely limited. In 1991, the so-called "Three-Circle Model" was introduced. It regulated the admission of labour migrants arriving in Switzerland based on their country of origin and their alleged "cultural proximity". "Culturally close" foreigners were described as more likely to assimilate into Swiss culture than "culturally distant" foreigners, who were regarded to have little probability to assimilate. Foreigners were thus divided into three different groups: While labour migrants from EU and EFTA states ("first circle") were given priority, the number of labour migrants from countries belonging to the "second circle" (e.g. USA, Canada, Middle and Eastern European states) was limited. Immigration from "all other states" ("third circle") was restricted to the highly skilled. In 1998, the "Three-Circle Model" was abandoned and replaced by a dual admission system. It continued to privilege immigration from EU and EFTA states while restricting immigration from third countries. The "Federal Act on Foreign Nationals", in force since 2008, maintained this dual admission model. Until today, labour migration from third countries remains restricted to highly skilled workers.

In 2000, the treaty package "Bilateral Agreements I" was accepted by Swiss voters. This enabled the implementation of the agreement on the free movement of citizens from EU-15 states in 2002. In subsequent years, the right to free movement was expanded to citizens of newly acceded EU member states. In 2006, it was granted to citizens of those states that had joined the EU in 2004 (EU-10), and in 2009 to citizens of Bulgaria and Rumania (EU-2), and in 2017 to Croatian citizens. Switzerland also joined the Schengen and Dublin agreements in the framework of "Bilateral agreements II" in 2004.

In 2014, the Swiss people voted by a narrow majority (50,3 per cent) in favour of the initiative "against mass immigration", which had been initiated by the national-conservative to right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party (SPP). The initiative called for the introduction of immigration quotas and an annual cap of the number of immigrants accepted to enter Switzerland. It also requested to renegotiate the free movement agreements with the EU in order to limit migration to Switzerland. In 2016, the Swiss Parliament passed a draft law to implement the initiative, but avoided to fix immigration quotas in the Swiss constitution as originally demanded by the initiative "against mass immigration". The reform only introduced the obligation for employers to report job vacancies in branches with high unemployment (as of January 2020 nation-wide unemployment rate of five per cent or higher) to the local employment office (RAV) which then seeks to find candidates to fill the position before the employer may publicly advertise the job vacancy. The SPP opposed the reform and launched another initiative to limit immigration which demanded to put the free movement agreement with the EU out of force. However, in a referendum in September 2020, a clear majority of Swiss voters (61.7 per cent of votes) rejected this initiative.

In January 2019, a revision of the Foreigners Act – now renamed Foreigners and Integration Act – entered into force. It introduces new provisions on integration to make e.g. the acquisition of language skills and the participation in economic life more binding. It also tightens the conditions for family reunification and for being granted a settlement permit (C permit) and allows for the downgrading of a (permanent) settlement permit to a (temporary) residence permit. Finally, it facilitates access to the labour market for recognised refugees and provisionally admitted persons by reducing bureaucratic hurdles.

Swiss asylum law – reforms and discourses

Switzerland’s first asylum law entered into force in 1981. Ever since, numerous amendments have been made to the asylum law , all tending to restrict the right to asylum – or at least to restrict access to possibilities to claim this right. In 2020, 11,041 asylum applications were registered in Switzerland compared to 14,269 in 2019, which means a decrease of 22.6 percent. This is the lowest number since 2007, but it should be viewed in the context of the measures taken to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, which included border closures and travel restrictions. Most people seeking asylum in Switzerland in 2020 came from Eritrea (1,917), followed by Afghanistan (1,681) and Turkey (1,201).

The asylum issue is highly politicized and there is a tendency towards a strong polarization of political parties with a view to asylum policy. Above all the right-wing Swiss People’s Party fuels fears of foreign infiltration (Überfremdung) in the Swiss population by denouncing an allegedly negative impact of immigration on Swiss identity and the social, security, cultural and economic situation in the country. This mobilizes political and civil society organisations to oppose such views and to counteract the rise of right-wing populist movements.

Since the 1980s asylum seekers have often been viewed with suspicion, when a discourse on the alleged "abuse of the asylum system" and on "bogus refugees" emerged, that keeps on surfacing every now and then. It has fuelled the adoption of more restrictive asylum policies. These have broadly followed two trends. On the one hand, the federal authorities have continuously tightened access to the asylum procedure and tried to reduce the attractiveness of Switzerland as an asylum destination. On the other hand, federal authorities have tried to increase efficiency in the asylum sector by accelerating procedures or introducing structural reforms to streamline the asylum system, especially since 2012, when the Swiss parliament adopted a legislative reform that allowed for a restructuring of the entire asylum sector. In June 2016, Swiss citizens voted in favour of the suggested alterations to the asylum law. In March 2019, these new asylum regulations entered into force. They aim at significantly reducing the average time to process asylum applications. This is to be achieved by centralising asylum structures, introducing strict deadlines for decision-making processes, and improving the quality of first instance decisions, e.g. by offering free legal counselling and assistance for asylum seekers during the entire asylum procedure.

In order to integrate refugees more quickly into the labour market and society, the federal government and the cantons have agreed on a joint integration agenda in 2019. It defined binding integration goals and processes. For example, refugees should learn one of the four national languages as quickly as possible, familiarize themselves with the customs of life in Switzerland and receive job-related support. The aim is for the state to save costs in the long term if refugees can quickly integrate into society and the labour market and support themselves instead of relying on social assistance.


Migration will remain a contentious issue in Switzerland in the future as well. Almost 40 per cent of Switzerland’s permanent resident population have a migration background, a quarter of the permanent resident population are foreign citizens although many of them have been living in Switzerland for decades or were even born and raised here. This is partly due to the fact that Switzerland’s citizenship laws are based on the principle of the "right of blood" (jus sanguinis) by which descent of at least one Swiss parent conditions the acquisition of Swiss citizenship, and of restrictive naturalisation practices. The growing number of people who are excluded from citizenship rights such as the participation in general elections, leads to a growing democratic deficit in a country that has been shaped by migration but is still struggling to fully embrace this reality. Debates about immigration continue to move between the two poles of foreign infiltration (Überfremdung) and integration. Migration challenges the image of nations as homogenous entities. Switzerland, like many other immigration countries in Europe, is still struggling to develop a new "we" that offers the option of belonging also to those who have so far been marked as "foreign" and who have therefore been relegated to a place outside the national community.

Weitere Inhalte

Line Huter studied Social Sciences at the University of Lausanne and is currently enrolled in the European Master in Migration Studies (EuMIGS) at the University of Osnabrück and the University of Neuchâtel. Her master thesis focuses on the change of discourse in the framework of the recent restructuring of the Swiss asylum system.