Swiss reject measure to limit foreigners

Officials concerned that population cap would have hurt image

September 25, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

GENEVA - Swiss voters rejected a proposal yesterday to impose a constitutional limit on the percentage of foreigners in their country, apparently heeding government warnings that it risked harming the economy and ties with the rest of Europe.

The proposal would have set a ceiling of 18 percent on the quantity of foreigners allowed in this country of 7.2 million people.

Overall, more than 63 percent voted against the measure, which had been proposed by center-right groups seeking to close Switzerland's borders to "unqualified" workers and to many refugees. Despite the relief in official Switzerland, which had fretted that a yes vote would have harmed the country's tourist-dependent image, concern remained over the relatively large vote in favor of the measure.

The vote had been closely watched because of rising xenophobic sentiments in Europe, which have increased under the flood of refugees seeking to flee war-torn regions, especially the countries that were once part of Yugoslavia.

Resentment here against refugees from Kosovo and, earlier, Bosnia helped secure surprising electoral gains a year ago for the right-wing Swiss People's Party, which campaigned against reported abuses by asylum seekers.

The success, and inclusion in the government, of the anti-immigrant Freedom Party in Austria revealed the fears of an aging European population that national identities were being eroded.

Opponents of the Swiss measure worried that this sentiment might be strong enough to win a majority of Swiss voters, even though similar restrictions have been rejected a half-dozen times in past decades.

Not counting diplomats and workers for international agencies and some other excepted categories, Switzerland's population is 19.3 percent foreign.

The French-speaking part of the country, as expected, rebuffed the measure.

But the mostly German-speaking cantons in the eastern part of the country that have the biggest influx of people from the former Yugoslavia had larger proportions favoring the ceiling.

To be passed, the proposal would have required a majority both of voters and of the 26 cantons. No canton approved the measure.

Swiss companies argued that closing the borders would prevent recruiting for people with specialized skills.

With unemployment at 1.8 percent last month, the lowest since 1992, companies are looking outside the country for workers.

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