Switzerland: Do strict citizenship laws help or hurt integration?

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Do strict citizenship laws help or hurt integration?

The old town of Bern.  In 2013, the authorities here passed the strictest citizenship law in Switzerland which stipulates that applicants may not be receiving social aid and must pay back any they have received in the past decade. (Keystone)
The old town of Bern.  In 2013, the authorities here passed the strictest citizenship law in Switzerland which stipulates that applicants may not be receiving social aid and must pay back any they have received in the past decade.


Elif* and Emre* have lived in Switzerland for 12 years, but a law that pushes for better-integrated new citizens has put on hold their dream of becoming Swiss anytime soon. Some say the legislation goes too far, actually achieving the opposite effect.

In 2004, Elif* and Emre* knew they needed to leave Turkey quickly. He says that the last of several trips to prison ended with threats against his family, so they went underground and hitched a ride west with a contact who was part of their network of democracy activists. When the truck stopped, they found themselves in Switzerland as political asylum seekers.

Nine years later, both of them had found jobs at a home for the blind near the Swiss capital. They had been financially independent for two years, and a report from their social worker described them as having “good German skills” and “a broad social network in Switzerland”. Meanwhile, a campaign was underway in their home canton of Bern to make anyone who has received social aid money in the past decade ineligible for Swiss citizenship – unless they paid it back.


Elif and Emre’s story

The couple tried to find work almost immediately after arriving in Switzerland but soon learned that their status as asylum seekers did not allow them to be employed or even buy a SIM card for their mobile phones in order to contact potential employers.
Elif gave birth to their daughter, and migration authorities placed them in several apartments in canton Bern before they eventually received refugee status and exited the asylum system. With limited ability to work beforehand, they immediately became reliant on social aid.

After many attempts to find work as a librarian or teacher – his profession in Turkey – Emre found an internship at the home for the blind where he now works. Elif, who has a degree in child psychology, took a job as a substitute child care worker. Their minimal and sporadic incomes continued to be supplemented by social aid until 2011, when both found steady work.

Their story resonates with Sophie Müller, a social aid worker in Wattenwil, canton Bern. “People who come out of the assistance period for asylum seekers are more likely to be dependent on social aid money for longer, especially if they’re not minors or at an age where they can seek an apprenticeship,” she says.

More and more options are being developed for refugees and older immigrants to receive job training through apprenticeships and internships like the one Emre found. But Chukwunyere has found those offerings to be fraught with pitfalls, especially for people who don’t want to take social aid money.

“You take a 35-year-old who probably already has some qualifications in their home country and place them at a point where you place a 16-year-old here,” she says.

“The training can take two to four years, and in that time you can’t live off of the money you earn in those positions. That means you become dependent on social welfare again.”

Climbing the permit ladder

Since permit and citizenship laws have become tied to social aid money, both Müller and Chukwunyere have worked with people who try to avoid taking such payments because they know the consequences.

“They would definitely be eligible for social aid and are considered working poor. But they don’t want the support anymore – and what does that mean for their children?” Chukwunyere wonders.

Müller mostly sees the laws affecting young immigrants who have no choice but to take social aid money when they become adults because their families depended on it throughout their childhood.

Usually, those young people aren’t after citizenship – at least not right away – but they do want to get a residence permit that gives them a better chance on the job market in Switzerland. To get a better permit, they also have to prove they’re not getting social aid and pay it back in some cases – nearly impossible for young people just starting out on their own.

“Those with certain types of permits aren’t eligible for scholarships, so they’re forced to take social aid money at age 18,” Müller explains. “Unless they don’t do an apprenticeship and look for a job right away, but that’s not what’s generally encouraged in Switzerland.”

“It is a big goal for young immigrants to get another type of permit,” Müller says. “And you’re taking some hope away from them if you tell them that it will be more difficult to get that permit if they take social aid money.”


*Not their real names



3 replies

  1. Integration is such a big word. It seems to mean something else for each person we speak to.

  2. My opinion would be that citizenship is the best step towards integration – for all sides.

  3. I agree with Chukwunyere. I believe that granting Swiss citizenship in an easier and earlier way would be the best way to improve integration. To let people feel ‘in limbo’ is to ensure that full integration does not take place. Poor guys, because actually they have been here so long that they would not feel at home in their country of origin either. Often they do not even speak and write the ‘mother tongue’ (or ‘father’s tongue’). Be one of us! Share our responsibilities! and you will automatically be integrated

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