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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Switzerland

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date August 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Switzerland, August 2011, available at: [accessed 2 December 2015]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Last updated: August 2011


Switzerland is a landlocked country at the crossroads of northern and southern Europe, bordering France, Italy, Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein. There are 26 cantons.


The Swiss alliance dates from 1291, when the three states (cantons) of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden united against their oppressors to form the 'Everlasting League'. More cantons joined the alliance to secure their freedom over the next centuries. During the Reformation, Switzerland became increasingly polarized between the German-speaking Protestant cities and the French-speaking Roman Catholic countryside. Despite this, the unity of the federation held. During the European conflicts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Switzerland remained neutral. Following the French invasion of 1798 Switzerland became a republic, which was liberated after the fall of Napoleon in 1815. The major powers guaranteed Swiss neutrality at the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Three more cantons joined the federation, giving it its present-day borders. After a brief civil war between Protestants and Roman Catholics, Switzerland adopted a federal constitution in 1848. The 1874 amendments made defence, trade and legal matters federal responsibilities, devolving all other matters to the cantonal governments.

Switzerland maintained its armed neutrality in both world wars. It was a refuge for many political dissidents, also for 25,000 Jews during the Nazi era until 1942, when the Swiss closed their borders to Jews. The support of Swiss banks for the Nazi regime and the German arms industry in the 1930s and 1940s resulted in Switzerland paying war reparations in 1952. Also, Swiss banks claimed there were no records of the money that Jewish families had placed with them for safe-keeping, or of Jewish possessions that were looted by the Nazis, but in 1995 they admitted to holding millions of dollars of Jewish money. From 1999 the banks began to pay compensation to the Jewish heirs.

In 1920 the headquarters of the League of Nations was set up in Geneva. Switzerland was a member of the League but refused to join the United Nations until 2002. However, several United Nations agencies set up headquarters in Geneva from the late 1940s.
There was significant immigration before 1914 because of the industrial revolution and the building of the railways. Foreign workers accounted for 14.7 per cent of the population in 1910 but only 5.2 per cent in 1941 because of the economic depression and tight immigration control. As the economy revived, the government signed guest-worker agreements with Italy, then with Spain, Portugal and Yugoslavia. Contracts were short term. By 1964 employers realized that they needed foreign workers for the longer term. The government adopted integration policies and allowed family members to join the workers. But foreign workers were made redundant and forced to leave in the recessions of 1975 to 1979 and 1983. As the economy revived, guest workers returned, this time from Eastern Europe and Turkey along with refugees from Yugoslavia, the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Switzerland has accepted various waves of political refugees, but with growing alarm as the numbers increase. Between 1990 and 2002 out of the 146,587 asylum applications from refugees of the former Yugoslavia, some 10,000 people were granted asylum, and 62,000 received temporary protection.

From the 1990s Switzerland forged closer ties with the European Union (EU), and right-wing politics strengthened. In October 2003 the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) became the largest party in the federal parliament after winning almost 28 per cent of the vote in general elections. An SVP leader became Minister of Justice and Police, in charge of migration and asylum. A year later a referendum rejected moves to relax the strict naturalization laws. In 2005 Switzerland ratified the open-border Schengen Agreement adopted by several EU states, and the EU Dublin Convention whereby asylum seekers can be returned to their first European country of arrival.


Main languages: Swiss-German/Schwyzerdutsch, French, Italian, Romansh

Main religions: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism

Minority groups include French-speakers 1.5 million (20.4%), Italian-speakers 489,422 (6.5%), former Yugoslavs 363,855 (4.8%), Turks 80,462 (1.1%), Portuguese 35,032, Spanish 76,080, Rhaetians/Romansh-speakers 50,000 (2003), Roma/Gypsies 30,000-35,000 (1990s estimates), Jews 17,900 (2003).

Nearly two-thirds (63.7%) of the population are Swiss-German-speakers, and they comprise most of the business and financial community.

Although Swiss-German-speakers constitute a numerical majority of the Swiss population - 17 cantons are monolingual in Swiss- German - their language, Schwyzerdutsch, is a minority one among German-speakers generally. Swiss-German-speakers are also a far from homogeneous group, comprising Protestants and Roman Catholics, urban and rural dwellers, upland and lowland communities, and speakers of a range of local dialects and variants. Hence the belief widely held among Swiss that all Swiss are members of minority groups.

Four cantons are French-speaking and three more are bilingual French and German. Italian is spoken in the canton of Ticino. Graubunden canton is trilingual in Romansh, German and Italian.

Switzerland has a high proportion of non-citizens in its population, about 1.7 million (22 per cent). The largest single group of foreign citizens is Italian (more than 300,000). The vast majority of foreign residents are from other European countries. Foreign residents are concentrated in the larger cities. There are an estimated 400,000 Muslims in Switzerland, with the majority originating from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia. Islam constitutes the second largest religion after Christianity.


Government is devolved and all legislation can be altered by referendum or by a procedure of citizen initiatives. The 26 cantons are the most important level in education, welfare, police, immigration and integration policies. They decide what aspects of these policies and the manner in which they should be handled at the federal and community levels. The cantons have responsibility, devolved from the federal level, for collecting taxes.

The 1938 Constitution recognizes four Swiss national languages - German, French, Italian and Romansh - and three official languages - German, French and Italian. In 1996 Romansh became an official language for the canton of Graubunden. The 1996 Constitution also made cultural exchange between the four languages obligatory. The 2004 Law on National Languages further defines the roles of the languages.

However, except in a few municipalities, there is no official bilingualism at the municipal level. Cantons apply the official languages in relation to territorial language boundaries. German, French and Italian are used at the federal level, and Romansh in federal matters relating to the Romansh community.

The Constitution bans all forms of discrimination based on origin, race, sex, age, language, social position, lifestyle, religious, philosophical and political persuasion, or a person's physical, mental or psychological deficiencies.

However, women's rights were relatively recently acquired. In 1971 women were given the right to vote in federal elections for the first time, and this was extended to the last of the cantons in 1981. In 1985 women gained legal equality with men within marriage.

Swiss nationality is by descent. Foreign citizens can apply for naturalization after 12 years' residence. Naturalization takes place in three stages, federal, cantonal and municipal. To obtain a federal permit candidates must show that they are integrated into Swiss society, and accept the Swiss way of life and laws. Residence requirements by the canton and municipality vary widely. Some require the full 12 years to be spent in their territory, others less time. Some municipal assemblies vote to accept or reject individual applications for citizenship. In other municipalities, a referendum was required on each application, but the Federal Court ruled against this in 2003. In three referendums, 1983, 1994, and 2004, Swiss voters rejected laws that would have made it easier for the Swiss-born children of immigrants to obtain Swiss nationality From 1992 Switzerland has allowed dual nationality.

The Federal Commission for Foreigners (FCF), composed of municipalities, communities, cantons, foreigners' organizations, employers and employees, and churches, was set up in 1970 to promote the coexistence of the foreign and native populations. The 1999 Integration Article paved the way for a more proactive federal integration policy and strengthened the FCF's role. Federal funding is provided for language and integration courses.

Immigration is on the basis of quotas for short- or medium-term permits, some of which can be renewed or transformed into permanent residency. No seasonal work permits have been issued since 2002, when the Bilateral Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons between Switzerland and the EU member states came into force. This sets quotas for EU nationals with work contracts to obtain residency permits. Immigration from non-EU countries is restricted to highly skilled workers. Foreign citizens wanting to change job or profession, or move to another canton, must obtain approval from the cantonal labour market authority. It is difficult for a foreigner to set up a business in Switzerland or to be self- employed.

The rise of the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) in the late Nineties represented a worrying trend in the country with regards to the treatment of minorities and the large immigrant population. In the 2007 Swiss elections, the SVP won 29 per cent of the vote, increasing its standing as the largest party in parliament. The SVP was accused of racism after using a campaigning poster entitled 'kick out the black sheep', which aimed to promote a policy of deporting foreign citizens who commit crimes. The rise of Islamophobia and the xenophobic policies of the SVP were further reflected by a referendum in 2009, which aimed to ban all minarets in the country. An overwhelming 57 per cent of voters voted 'yes' in the referendum, which was put forward by the SVP. The advertising campaign that promoted the referendum showed posters depicting burka-clad women against a backdrop of missile-like minarets. In November 2010, Swiss voters backed an earlier proposal for the automatic expulsion of non-Swiss citizens convicted of certain crimes. Both this proposal and the policy to ban minarets were condemned by human rights groups and foreign governments.



Minority based and advocacy organisations

Amnesty International
Tel: +41 31 307 2222

Swiss Helsinki Committee (Schweizerische Helsinki-Vereinigung)
Tel: +41 61 261 41 69

Lia Rumantscha
[Promote the Romansh language and culture]
Tel: +41 (0)81 258 32 22

Sources and further reading


MRG (ed.), Minorities and Autonomy in Western Europe, London, MRG, 1991.


Candrian, R., Cavigelli, P. and Peer, O., Polyglott-Sprachführer: Rätoromanisch. Sursilvan - Ladin, Polyglott-Verlag München.

Walther, P. and Messmer, D., Rumauntsch: Puter. Ein Kleiner Sprachführer Führer den Alltag, Societed da turrisem d'Engiadin' Ota.

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