Odd, Tough Tests for Aspiring Swiss Citizens

The Swiss say it is the power of the people.

Human rights groups say it is flagrant xenophobia. Its victims say it is a completely legal popularity contest.

Switzerland’s long-standing immigration custom of “let the locals decide” has come under fire.

In this pristine country, each town has the right to allow its citizens to choose who can be one of them. But recent controversies suggest that this choice is based on deciding who is “Swiss” enough to fit in.

Ethnically Turkish, Culturally Swiss

Oezcan Oezbey has lived in Pratteln, Switzerland, since he was five years old. Though he is Turkish, Switzerland is his home.

Three years ago, at the age of 20, he decided to make it official and applied for Swiss citizenship. He submitted himself to a trying process. Local officials tested him on Swiss holidays, typical celebrations and facts about the different cantons in Switzerland.

It can be even worse. Some towns take the citizenship process to a much greater extreme. This past spring, the town of Emmen, near Lucerne, forced its prospective citizens to undergo what has come to be known as “the fondue test.”

Local officials visited applicants in their homes to see how clean their homes were, how they lived, and yes, what they were cooking.

Photographs of the applicants were published and circulated in a booklet, along with personal details like what their family history was, what their hobbies were, and even what their income status and tax history was.

All this so that the applicants’ neighbors could choose who could be one of them.

A Tyranny of the Minority

But for many, it is not enough. In both Emmen and Pratteln, a significant majority of those who applied were rejected.

In Pratteln, just 200 of a possible 3,000 eligible voters came to the polls. Still, what some critics called a tyranny of the minority legitimately ended the dreams of some applicants.

Most of those who applied were not from Western Europe. Switzerland opened its doors wider to immigrants from less affluent areas of Europe in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s because it was looking for cheap labor.

Now, in some towns, the doors to some of these people is being closed. Turkish, Hungarian, Yugoslav and Polish applicants were high in the rejection tallies. Yet many Italians and Spaniards were accepted.

Oezbey was one of the Turks rejected. He believes his country of birth is the only reason he could have been refused a passport. “People from Islamic [countries] or Turkish people or from Yugoslavia were [thought to be] dangerous for the country,” he said.

Such cases have inspired national outrage. Switzerland is, by definition, a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic country, but despite this it has long been imbued with xenophobic tendencies. Recently, historians revealed that Switzerland sent more Jewish refugees back to Nazi Germany during World War II than it accepted.

And it is still trying to turn people away.

Accused of Xenophobia

Last month, Swiss citizens were given the option of closing the immigration doors to the country. The Swiss voted on a referendum that set a quota on the number of foreigners that would be accepted for citizenship. The referendum would have limited the foreign-born to 18 percent of the population; they currently make up 19.3 percent.

The referendum proposal failed, but concerns remain that almost 40 percent of voters were in favor of setting a limit.

“It makes me wonder what is going to happen with all the foreigners; [this referendum] is an enormous amount of people saying we are against foreigners,” said Jeannine De Haller of the Alliance de Gauche, Leftist party.

Despite this, Oezbey still considers Switzerland his true home. Constitutional courts granted him an appeal and his neighbors will vote on him again in December.