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Mediterranean Quarterly 15.4 (2004) 147-166

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Immigration and Its Impacts in Switzerland

According to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, 21.6 percent of the total population—and around 25 percent of the workforce—living in Switzerland in 2002 were foreigners.1 Even though varying citizenship regulations among countries make national statistics not fully comparable,2 this proportion is nearly twice as great as the European average and places Switzerland among the countries with the highest share of foreigners in the world. Despite this, Switzerland has never really depicted itself as a true immigration country, long considering immigration as merely an economic or temporary matter. For instance, only recently did the integration of immigrants become a real policy issue.

Switzerland is an interesting case, for it provides information on the impacts of mass immigration on a relatively small receiving country and on the ways a government can deal with this phenomenon and its associated issues over time. Indeed, two antagonistic dynamics that most immigration countries have had to deal with—demands for cheap labor from the economy and latent xenophobia among nationals—have been extraordinarily intense in Switzerland. Whereas very high levels of economic activity and a structural labor shortage have made immigration a vital element of the national economy, popular xenophobia has found decisive institutional channels of [End Page 147] expression through direct democracy, exerting great pressure on the Swiss authorities in this area.

In this short article I address the major patterns of immigration in Switzerland and the ways this phenomenon has been dealt with over time, as well as its social, economic, and political impacts. In the first section I outline the main economic and institutional patterns in which immigration and immigration policy in Switzerland are embedded. In the second I provide a brief historical overview of immigration until the 1990s, and in the third I pre-sent data on the evolution of immigration flows in recent years, as well as the major evolutions that have occurred in this policy field. I conclude with a few critical remarks.

Economic Demands and Xenophobic Constraints

Two major factors should be considered in order to understand the dynamics of immigration and immigration policy in Switzerland during the past fifty years. Economic structure and direct democracy can be considered central explicative variables accounting to a large extent for the patterns of immigration flows and immigration policies, as well as their impacts on the Swiss economy, society, and politics. These two factors have maintained a rather problematic relationship over time. The greatest puzzle the Swiss government has had to face in this domain has been to handle both (1) high demand for foreign labor from the economy and (2) strong popular xenophobia expressed through direct democracy.3

For much of the twentieth century, Switzerland was a model of economic success and stability. Inflation has always been low; and unemployment hardly existed until the 1990s and still remains among the lowest in Europe. Although differences with other European countries are becoming smaller than they used to be, wages and standards of living remain very high in international terms, and this has acted as a powerful "pull-factor" for potential immigrants.

In spite of being a small country without raw materials, Switzerland has [End Page 148] been able to develop highly competitive industries producing goods essentially for niche markets, which has made the Swiss economy very dependent on international markets of goods, capital, and labor. Hence, for a country of its size, Switzerland has a large number of multinational companies producing pharmaceuticals, chemicals, watches, machines, or food or providing banking and financial services. However, as a recent issue of the Economist pointed out,4 "There is not just one Swiss economy, but several. Some are more impressive than others." In reality, the structure of the Swiss economy is dual. Besides the export-oriented industries, which represent only a minority of jobs, the greatest part of the Swiss economic structure consists of small- and medium-sized companies producing essentially for the domestic market: builders, craftsmen, retailers, farmers, hoteliers, and restaurateurs. The domestic economy has been partially safe...


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