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Proposal to deport foreign criminals lands on Swiss ballot

Swiss voters decide Sunday on a proposal to automatically deport foreigners who commit crimes. The idea has gained plenty of support, but opponents say it’s a step to far.

A sign marking the Swiss border

Foreign criminals may soon be sent out of Switzerland

Swiss voters are to go to the polls on Sunday to decide on a proposal that would see foreigners who commit crimes become subject to automatic deportation. Supporters of the proposal, which is backed by the right-wing Swiss People's Party, say that immigrants to Switzerland are disproportionately responsible for crime, and should not be allowed to stay in the country.

Opponents however say the proposal won't reduce crime, but could deport many who have lived all their lives in Switzerland.

A box of ballots in Switzerland

Swiss are to vote on the proposal on Sunday

Crime rates in Switzerland are quite low by European standards, and some analysts suggest violent crime is actually decreasing, but it is a fact that in Swiss prisons, around 70 percent of the inmates are foreign nationals, while just 23 percent of Switzerland's overall population is foreign.

Crime statistics analysts caution against using these figures to score political points however, pointing out that a sizeable number of the foreigners in jail are short term illegal immigrants, awaiting deportation anyway.

Critics of the proposal also point out that criminals in Switzerland tend to fit the profile of criminals all over the world; young men, on low incomes or without a job, poorly educated, and with little prospect of improving their situation.

In Switzerland, however, these young men are overwhelmingly foreign - a fact opponents of deportation say should encourage the Swiss government to improve integration measures and chances for foreigners, rather than crack down on crime.

Hard-working foreigners wanted

Supporters of automatic deportation insist however that foreigners who break the law in Switzerland should not have the right to stay.

“We have in Switzerland two kinds of foreigners,” explained Patrick Freudiger of the Swiss People's Party, “the foreigners who want to work and respect our laws, these foreigners are welcome. Then we have other foreigners who commit crimes, who don't want to work, they should go.”

A woman with a Swiss-flag t-shirt walks among flags of other nations

An increasing number of Swiss residents are immigrants

As Switzerland's foreign population grows, this point of view is finding favor; recent opinion polls show around 53 per cent of voters back the proposal.

The Swiss government however has advised voters to reject it, saying automatic deportation (with no case-by-case review by a judge) could contravene Switzerland's obligations under international law. 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 opponents of both the original deportation proposal, and the government's alternative, point to an existing Swiss law allowing for the deportation of foreign criminals, any new legislation risks going too far, they say.

They point to the fact that the Swiss People's Party proposal would apply even for relatively minor crimes, such as breaking and entering, drug dealing, or social security fraud. What's more, they claim, the law would apply to people from second and third generation immigrant families, people born in Switzerland who have lived nowhere else.

Anti-crime or anti-foreigner?

What is troubling Switzerland's large foreign community most of all is the tenor of the Swiss People's Party campaign in favor of deportation. Many feel targeted by the party posters depicting 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 per cent 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.”

Likely to pass

In fact, political analysts suggest this vote has far more to do with exploiting fears, in particular worries about globalization and immigration, than it has to with crime.

“This vote is not about some complex legal issues about how to deal with certain types of criminal foreigners” said Georg Lutz, political science professor at the University of Lausanne.

Campaign posters for a minaret ban

A minaret ban passed last year in Switzerland

“What most people will want to do in this vote is make a statement against foreigners, and that is the central motivation.”

If the latest opinion polls are correct, Swiss voters will say yes to the deportation proposal on Sunday.

If they do, Switzerland will have some of the strictest deportation laws in Europe, international law experts argue they may even violate the European convention on human rights.

This, however, is unlikely to trouble the Swiss People's Party, which successfully masterminded the campaign to ban minarets last year, a decision which raised serious questions about Switzerland's commitment to allowing freedom of religious expression.

Author: Imogen Foulkes, Berne (mz)
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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