- - Monday, December 1, 2014

BASEL, SwitzerlandSwitzerland has been making headlines for years with its referendums to tighten immigration, the most recent in February infuriating its neighbors after voters approved quotas for foreigners hailing from the European Union.

But a different debate has been waged alongside attempts to clamp down on immigration — how to better attract and integrate the richer, skilled foreigners who often dislike Switzerland, and entice them to stay.

It’s an effort already begun by large corporations and city governments.

“If the Swiss were not dependent on highly skilled foreigners, [we] could say, ‘Take us or leave us,’” said Guy Morin, president of the municipal government of Basel in northwestern Switzerland. “But our economy needs them.”

On Sunday, Swiss voters roundly rejected a proposal that would have limited immigration to 0.2 percent of the nation’s population — about 16,000 immigrants a year in a country of 8 million. Immigration currently is estimated at about 80,000 a year.

More than 8 percent of the half-million people living in Basel’s metropolitan area are so-called “expats” — expatriate workers — often from Europe, the United States and India.

The region is home to many international companies and hosts the headquarters of two of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, Roche and Novartis. Sixty-five percent of those two corporations’ employees hail from outside Switzerland, Mr. Morin said.

High salaries, safe cities and a high quality of life lure foreigners to the small, rich alpine nation. Moreover, Switzerland’s central European location makes it easy to visit other parts of the continent as many countries are only a short drive or quick flight away.

Even so, keeping these much-needed, lucrative foreign workers is a challenge for the Swiss, especially because many foreigners don’t like what they perceive as the Swiss’ cold, quirky and uptight manner and their highly ordered, rule-oriented society, according to interviews with Swiss-based expats.

Typical expat complaints about Swiss “quirks” include requirements to reserve washing machines in laundry facilities in apartment buildings, public bathroom rules that require men to sit on toilets when urinating and sensitive neighbors’ complaints about any noise louder than the drop of a pin after 10 p.m.

It also hasn’t helped that the Swiss are perceived as anti-foreigner, in particular because of the vitriolic nature of the anti-immigration campaigns leading up to successful referendums that include attacks on foreigners for “stealing jobs” from locals. Nearly 24 percent of Switzerland’s 8 million people are foreign-born.

Greek geologist Stefanos Karampelas says that his initial dislike hasn’t changed after five years in Switzerland.

“I don’t fully like the country,” he said. “I feel that the Swiss are seeing me as somebody inferior who will never reach their ‘level.’”

Still, a study by the Swiss-based Ecos consultancy firm in 2012 said that a major obstacle to integration owes to the complexity of the “Schweizerdeutsch” — a German dialect spoken in the German-speaking region of the country that includes Basel — as well as unfamiliar social rules and the ghettoization of the expat society.

“Expats live in a parallel society with a subculture of its own that takes place in English and has very little input from locals,” said Marcella Ramelli, a psychologist based in Basel who specializes in multicultural issues.

For many highly educated foreigners, Switzerland’s international, polyglot cities make it easy to get by without learning the local language. International schools, English-speaking offices at global companies, expat organizations and government documents provided in English make learning a new language unnecessary, especially for those only staying for short periods.

“The whole move is a challenge for the family, the job is a challenge for the employee, and if you’d made everything in German from the beginning, it’d be too much for people,” said Bruno Weissen, human resources chief for Roche in Basel. “It is more important to get the talents the country needs first and make it easy for them than sticking to German.”

In order to help expats overcome initial difficulties, Basel’s municipal government has created an English-language program with practical information about schools, language courses and Swiss laws, as well as a crash course on Swiss habits and behaviors.

Roche uses a similar approach with its expat workforce, although its integration program starts long before an employee arrives in Switzerland.

Although these measures may help in theory, they are not always applicable in the real world. For expat Andrew Gigax, formerly of Indianapolis, Indiana, the cultural norms are the real social barriers.

“Most of our attempts [to have a social life with locals] never worked,” said Mr. Gigax, who has lived in Basel with his wife and daughter since 2011 and says he speaks “average German.”

“Making friends at work is a big no-no,” he added. “You ask personal questions of your colleagues in hopes of finding common ground or interests, and you soon start getting their sense of uncomfortableness.”

Still, Ulrike Wiehr has gained an appreciation for the Swiss mentality.

“Locals have a reticence to become friends with someone who will leave in a few years,” said the German national, whose family has fully integrated in Therwill, a small town close to Basel. “It has to do with their concept of friendship, which is something [that lasts] for a lifetime, not with the fact that they are cold or introverted.”

“Once they saw we were here to stay and did everything locally, they became so warm and welcoming with us, and we experienced things we thought before would never happen,” Ms. Wiehr added.

Ms. Ramelli came from Colombia 14 years ago, determined to learn German. She put her two children in local schools as opposed to international ones, which experts and expats believe to be one of the best ways to become part of the Swiss society.

“Expats must make a conscious and voluntary effort to integrate, because here it’s not something that happens automatically like in other countries,” she added. “The social codes in Switzerland are very difficult to understand unless you have a lot of contact with local people.”

But for Mr. Morin, the local mentality is what needs to change.

“They must realize that we are an international city with a globalized economy — many Swiss are not aware of it,” he said. “They still have visions of mountains and valleys.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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