Switzerland debates tough deportation proposal

Detail of poster put out by Swiss People's Party. It reads: Ivan S, rapist and soon to be Swiss?

Voters in Switzerland will go to the polls on Sunday to decide on a proposal to automatically deport foreigners who commit crimes.

Supporters of the proposal claim immigrants to Switzerland are disproportionately responsible for crime and should not be allowed to stay in the country.

The proposal is the initiative of the right-wing Swiss People's Party, the party which also masterminded last year's successful campaign to ban the building of minarets in Switzerland.

The People's Party points to the fact that foreigners are overrepresented in Swiss jails - about 70% of the inmates are foreign, while 23% of Switzerland's overall population is foreign.

"We have in Switzerland two kinds of foreigners, the foreigners who want to work and respect our laws, and these foreigners are welcome," said Patrick Freudiger, a member of the youth branch of the People's Party.

"Then we have other foreigners who commit crimes, who don't want to work," he added.

"They just want to benefit from our social security, and these people should be made to leave."

The proposed new law envisages automatic deportation, with no right of appeal, for foreigners who commit a wide variety of crimes, ranging from murder and rape, to breaking and entering, drug dealing, and social security fraud.

Crime debate

But those against automatic deportation say the proposal is too harsh and punitive a measure to solve a rather minor problem.

Crime in Switzerland is relatively low by European standards and the People's Party claim that violent crime is rising is not, analysts say, necessarily true.

And, opponents point out, Switzerland already has a law allowing for the deportation of foreigners who come into the country and commit serious crimes.

Their cases are, as is the current practice in most European countries, reviewed individually by a judge, and their circumstances taken into account.

The new proposal, opponents say, would mean people from second- and third-generation immigrant families in Switzerland could be deported to a country they have never lived in and know nothing about.

Almost one in four people living in Switzerland is not actually Swiss, although a great many were actually born in the country.

Switzerland's naturalisation process is one of the toughest in Europe, and becoming Swiss remains a long, complicated and expensive process.

Culture clash

Some political analysts believe the real motivation behind the People's Party's choice of this issue is not concern about crime, but a desire to capitalise on the fears of some Swiss that the foreign population has become too big.

"The People's Party has been campaigning on one single issue in the last 20 years," said Georg Lutz, political scientist at the University of Lausanne.

"And that has been to be against everything which is foreign: sometimes it's the United Nations, sometimes it's the European Union, this time it is foreigners, or criminal foreigners.

"There has been almost a cultural clash in this campaign, where they say we have to defend Switzerland and Swiss values. And that is what this is about far more than a few hundred criminal foreigners," he said.

"It's a bit hard to believe that even if this initiative is adopted it's going to reduce crime in any way in this country."

Black sheep

The tone of the campaign has certainly caused alarm among members of Switzerland's foreign community.

Many feel targeted by campaign posters depicting black sheep being kicked out of Switzerland or showing certain ethnic groups as guilty of certain crimes: Ivan is a rapist, for example, Ismir a social security cheat, and Detleff a child molester.

"You can't just say that everyone in Switzerland who is not 100% Swiss tends to be criminal," said Moreno Casasola, who is half Italian, half Swiss, and has lived all his life in Switzerland.

"But that's the meaning of this kind of poster. They just make a general message that all foreigners tend to be criminal, and that's touching me as well."

The campaign has raised eyebrows in the international community too.

Just days before the vote, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights delivered a critical report on Switzerland, expressing concern about discrimination against immigrants, and recommending that the Swiss government do more to combat Switzerland's 'increasing intolerance and xenophobia".

Gaining support

The Swiss government, worried by legal advice that the deportation proposal may violate Switzerland's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, has advised voters to reject it.

Instead the government has put forward an alternative: a list of serious crimes which would make the perpetrator liable to deportation.

This proposal, however, seems to have less support so far, with many potential voters describing it as too weak or woolly.

Meanwhile the Swiss People's Party proposal does seem to be finding favour with voters. The latest opinion polls suggest 53% would support it.

If voters do back the proposal on Sunday, Switzerland will have some of the strictest deportation laws in Europe.

And, as with the banning of minarets, the case could mean Switzerland having to defend itself at the European Court of Human Rights.

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