A campaign poster at a train station in Zurich reads 'Ivan S, rapist and soon to be Swiss?', 28 Nov 2010
A campaign poster at a train station in Zurich reads 'Ivan S, rapist and soon to be Swiss?', 28 Nov 2010

Swiss citizens are going to the polls to vote on a referendum to automatically expel foreign criminals.  Opinion polls indicate the measure will pass by a wide margin.

Two competing issues are on the ballot. The so-called Black Sheep Initiative is an idea contrived by the right wing Swiss People's Party. It calls for the automatic deportation, with no right of appeal, of foreigners convicted of crimes ranging from murder and rape to lesser offenses, such as burglary.

The second option, backed by parliament, includes a case-by-case examination to determine deportation and any additional measures.  

The head of the Federal Migration Office, Alard du Bois-Reymond, warns Switzerland could earn a reputation as a xenophobic country if the Black Sheep Initiative passes.  

He says the government's proposal deals with the problem of crimes committed by foreigners, but in a more rational, humane way.

"It is comprehensive. It deals with all criminal acts, which are important. It avoids expelling foreigners because of minor acts. This is important. What I feel is as important as this comprehensive way of acting against criminals is also to act in a preventive way, that we try to promote integration of foreigners. I think this is also very important to avoid criminality."

Yasmina Causevic, a representative of the group, the Forum for the Integration of Migrants, dismisses both initiates as useless. She says crime is a problem that touches the whole society, not just foreigners.  

She says she does not believe either of the two initiatives will have any effect on Switzerland's crime rate. She says expelling people who commit crimes will change nothing.

"We think that social justice for all people living in Switzerland will be the better approach to fight delinquency. As well, the current laws are completely sufficient to punish all criminals regardless of whether the crime is committed by a foreigner or by a Swiss.  And, it is already possible to expel criminals who threaten national security.  So, there is actually absolutely no need for new laws."  

Currently, about 750 foreigners are expelled from Switzerland every year. But there are regional differences, and courts can order deportation as an additional punishment.

Critics say passage of the hard-line initiative will put Switzerland at odds with international treaties. They say it will conflict with the Free Movement of People accord with the European Union.

Yves Nidegger, a parliamentarian representing the Swiss People's Party, calls such reasoning nonsense.

"As an administrative consequence of a criminal court decision, we would expel criminals who violated seriously the law. And, that does not run against the freedom of movement of workers. It is not the freedom of movement of criminals in Europe, but the freedom of movement of workers."  

The Swiss People's Party has run an advertising campaign to warn the public of the threats posed by criminal immigrants. Their posters depict black sheep being kicked out of Switzerland. They are reminiscent of posters used so effectively in a referendum last year in which the Swiss banned the construction of minarets in the country.

Opponents are crying foul. But opinion polls indicate such tactics are working and could help the Black Sheep Initiative win the ballot.