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Switzerland: Controversial Referendum on Automatic Expulsion of Foreign Residents Convicted of Crimes

(Dec. 3, 2010) On November 28, 2010, Swiss voters supported an initiative launched by the far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP) to automatically expel any foreign residents convicted of certain crimes. The vote was 52.9% in favor and 47.1% opposed, with only six of the country's 26 cantons rejecting the proposal. The SVP is the same party that successfully brought about a ban on the construction of new minarets through a referendum adopted in late 2009. (Valentina Pop, Switzerland to Kick Out Convicted Foreigners, EUOBSERVER.COM (Nov.29, 2010),; Edith Palmer, Switzerland: Referendum Bans Minarets, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Dec. 4, 2009), //

Contents of the Initiative

The first part of the initiative on the deportation of foreign criminals called for amendment of article 121 of the Federal Constitution of April 18, 1999, with the addition of three new paragraphs on the loss of immigrant status and stripping of rights of residence based on commission of certain crimes (¶ 3); ascription to the legislature of the power to provide for further details relating to matters in paragraph 3 (¶ 4); the banning of expelled persons from returning to Switzerland for a period of 5-15 years and 20 years in the case of recidivists (¶ 5); and the liability to prosecution of persons who illegally re-enter Switzerland (¶ 6). The crimes under paragraph 3 that could result in automatic expulsion include murder, rape, or any other serious sexual offense; acts of violence such as robbery and drug trafficking, and even “abuse of social aid.” (Wortlaut Volksinitiative [Text of Popular Initiative [on the Deportation of Foreign Criminals]] [in German],
(last visited Nov. 30, 2010); EU Urges Switzerland to 'Respect Obligations' on Expulsions, EU BUSINESS (Nov. 29, 2010),

The second part of the initiative advocated amendment of a transitional provision of the Constitution, article 197. A new paragraph 8 would allow five years from the adoption of the new provisions under article 121 by the people and the cantons for the legislature to define the acts constituting infractions under paragraph 3 and to determine the penal provisions applicable to illegal entry under paragraph 6. (Wortlaut Volksinitiative, supra.)

Under current law, non-Swiss convicts can be repatriated to their home countries based only on an assessment of each individual and after a court ruling. (Pop, supra.) Government statistics indicate that “some 350-400 people are expelled every year”; it is projected, however, that “the figure could rise more than threefold” after the law's enactment. Reportedly more than 20% of the 7.7 million inhabitants of Switzerland are foreigners. (Pop, supra.)

Reactions to the Initiative

The Swiss government confirmed the referendum result as valid and stated that in transposing the referendum into law it would have to try “to minimise any conflict with Switzerland's international obligations.” Before entering into force, the law would have to be voted on by the legislature. (Id.)

In the meantime, on November 29, 2010, the European Union urged Switzerland to observe its international obligations. A spokesman for Catherine Ashton, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, stated: “[w]e take note of yesterday's results, we are going to study how these results will be implemented in Switzerland.” (Id.) The Belgian newspaper Le Soir was quoted as stating, however, that expulsion as endorsed in the vote “is absolutely incompatible with the bilateral accord of free movement of people which links Switzerland to EU” and could “put all bilateral accords in question.”(Id.)

Some human rights groups also condemned the initiative. The European Network Against Racism (ENAR), for example, called the vote the “result of a xenophobic and discriminatory campaign launched by the populist Swiss People's Party, making dangerous amalgams between immigration and criminality.” ENAR further commented that it was unclear “where the limit would be set – first, second or even third or fourth generation immigrants.” (Pop, supra.)

Moreover, on November 30, 2010, the United Nations Refugee Agency appealed to Switzerland's political parties to abide by the principle of no forced returns in the debate over expulsion of convicted foreigners. A spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees noted that non-refoulement “exists to ensure that no refugee or asylum-seeker is returned to a situation in which they face serious harm, such as persecution, torture or inhumane or degrading treatment.” (Swiss Vote to Expel Convicted Foreigners Must Not Put Refugees at Risk, Says UN, UN NEWS CENTRE (Nov. 30, 2010),
.) Switzerland ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees on January 21, 1955, and acceded to the 1967 Protocol on May 20, 1968. (States Parties to the 1951 Convention and Its 1967 Protocol (Basic Documents, Oct. 1, 2008), UNHCR website,