Swiss vote sparks question if immigration is boon or bane

18th October 2011, Comments 0 comments

With its view of Lake Geneva and the Alps, cows grazing peacefully nearby, it is easy to see why the Swiss village of Bassins has become a popular home for well-heeled expatriates.

But with the population of foreigners more than doubling from 12 percent in 1990 to 25.4 percent today, some in the village are starting to have misgivings about the newcomers who they say are putting property prices out of reach of locals.

The situation of Bassins is not isolated. Across Switzerland, debate is raging over the country's foreign population, which numbered 1.751 million at the end of August 31, 2011, making up 22.3 percent of the country's 7.9 million population.

In 1990, the foreign community numbered just 1.1 million or 16.7 percent of total population.

While the country acknowledges that foreign labour is essential for the economy, the current slowdown due to the eurozone crisis is accentuating fears that migrants are taking away jobs from the Swiss and putting pressure on housing shortages and other infrastructure.

With parliamentary elections coming on Sunday, the far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP) appears to be leading the race on an anti-immigration ticket ahead of the centre-right Radical Party and Christian Democrats.

The country's biggest political party, the SVP has anchored its campaign on the issue, plastering posters across the country depicting the legs of men in suits marching across the Swiss flag, with the slogan "That's enough. Stop mass migration".

"We need to manage migration. There are too many structural problems which are appearing because of badly managed migration, be it people who are just here to benefit from social insurance or others," said Fabrice Moscheni, who heads the Vaud chapter of SVP.

"We also have migration in certain parts of the country which is pushing rent sky high, and which clogs up our infrastructure.

The SVP's message appears to have had an impact. According to an opinion poll two weeks before the vote, migration is Switzerland's biggest concern.

Among Bassins' 1,200 inhabitants, "we found 29 nationalities during our last count a week ago," Didier Lohri, the village's mayor said.

"You have people from all the continents and they are really linked to the international companies that are in the region.

"It's not that we are against foreigners, but it's simply that the economic system is causing us to lose the balance in our normal social fabric," he said.

Lohri bemoans the failure of other political parties to engage on the issue, noting that discussions on migration are "only on the bad points."

"We are agitating people on one side, saying there is immigration, all these thieves, all these scandalous people are arriving here.

"But on the other hand, we are giving favourable conditions to companies to set up here. And we know that these companies are coming with their personnel," said Lohri.

"SVP is strong because it is mopping up all the elements on immigration. In the cities, SVP gathers the problem of security that we don't have here.

"Here you have the discussions about the anglophones, with people saying that they don't feel like they are at home anymore... so they vote SVP because they are the only ones who are campaigning aggressively," he noted.

At the Basel suburb of Riehen, one anti-migration SVP poster dons a wall barely 20 metres from the Swiss border with Germany.

A few blocks down, the same advertising appears, followed by another showcasing the party's local candidates.

It is particularly at such border towns where the fear of foreigners coming to take jobs were perhaps acutely felt.

"Of course I understand the fear that the SVP or the Swiss who says, there are no more Swiss here, there are only foreigners, but this does not have to be provocative," noted Serhad Karatekin, a spokesman for the Basler Muslim Commission.

"There has to be a political debate about this," he said, noting that the political strategy is saying that "we need these foreigners, these skilled workers, for example the streetbuilder, the cleaners."

"The SVP wants to stop immigration, they don't want anymore foreigners, but that is almost impossible in today's world," noted Karatekin, a Muslim of Turkish origin who was born in Switzerland.

© 2011 AFP

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