A short (im)migration history of Switzerland
Published on 23.07.2021
What does it mean to be Swiss? Regardless of the exact reasons why you feel that you belong to this part of the world, technically speaking, all Swiss people have one thing in common (and that’s without resorting to clichés): a migration background. We’ll tell you why and take you on a journey through Switzerland’s — quite literally —moving history.
Our excursion starts rather quickly with the following question: What does it actually mean to be a “foreigner”? If you look at Swiss history, then you will see that the definition of this word has changed over time: For example, until 1848 (thanks to cantonal citizenship rights), you were considered a foreigner if you just moved from Glarnerland to Zurich (whose family hasn’t moved from one canton to another at one point in time?). Only since 1915 has there been a Swiss passport that clearly defines foreigners as people who have come from across the Swiss national border.
Over the course of Swiss history, the reactions to these people have been very different: In 1914, for example, the proportion of foreigners in the Swiss population reached a new high of 600,000 people — or 15 percent. Interestingly, this was also the time when Switzerland would become one of the richest countries in the world. The economy really took a liking to the influx of migrants, who invested their energy and labour into the country’s economic growth. Politically, there was even talk of “forced naturalisation” to make sure that foreign workers would stay in the country in the long term.
However, an increase in the number of immigrants has always triggered an increase of feelings, too — both feelings of solidarity and of rejection. It is easy to forget that Switzerland also saw long periods of emigration. Between 1815 and the First World War, around one million people left Switzerland to escape poverty and a lack of opportunity. They even had their own newspaper based in Bern. It was called “The Colonist. A Journal for the Protection, Support and Education of Swiss Emigrants” and was published in 1853.
Continuing along the timeline, the same picture emerges again and again: People come, go and stay. But Swiss history has never been motionless or silent — even today. To put it in numbers: Since the 1980s, the number of migrants in Switzerland has been increasing consistently. The list is headed by people from Italy (16.7%), Germany (15.5%) and Portugal (12.5%). At the same time, around one in 10 Swiss people lived abroad at the end of 2020.
In other words, migration has never been a one-way street and flows of immigration and emigration have been as formative for Swiss society as tectonic plate shifts have been for the Swiss landscape.
PS: We’d like to use this footnote for a quick tip of the hat: With their book “Schweizer Migrationsgeschichte – von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart” (Swiss Migration History — from the Beginning to the Present”) (2018, ISBN 978-3-03919-414-8), authors André Holenstein, Patrick Kury and Kristina Schulz have unravelled Switzerland’s migration history and put it down on paper in an easily digestible manner. The story is mainly based on their brilliant research work. If you would like to know about this topic, then we highly recommend this book!