Published on People Move

Restrict immigration to safeguard the natural environment?

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In 2014, Swiss voters will have to decide on two referenda which mandate restricting immigration. 

The first is sponsored by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and seeks the reintroduction of quotas for the number of foreigners allowed to work in Switzerland.  The proposal is contrary to the free movement of workers agreement that Switzerland has signed with the European Union. While the SVP argues that the accord with the EU can be renegotiated, this will most likely be an illusion since such a move would open the door to renegotiating all bilateral agreements Switzerland has signed with the EU.

A second referendum dealing with immigration is an initiative entitled “Stop overpopulation – safeguard our natural environment.” It calls for limiting annual population growth in Switzerland due to immigration to 0.2 per cent. In order to help slow population growth in the rest of the world, the initiative also proposes that at least 10 per cent of Swiss development assistance be spent on measures to promote voluntary family planning.

The supporters of the referendum propose this cap of 0.2 per cent because they see population growth as the main reason “for excessive construction activities and resources consumption which jeopardize nature as well as bio-diversity.” The annual cap of 0.2 percent on residence permits would also apply to asylum seekers, persons granted entry on humanitarian grounds, and those wanting to be reunited with a family member already in Switzerland. If the initiative is accepted, Switzerland will have to reconsider various provisions in its Constitution as well as in international agreements.

Passage of these referenda would also have a major impact on the Swiss economy.  Some economic sectors would have enormous difficulties in recruiting the workers they need. The current free movement of persons within the EU would be disrupted, and entry from non-EU states would also be restricted.

Swiss voters will probably understand that the promotion of voluntary family planning will not solve a broader social problem: in the absence of governmental welfare systems, parents in developing countries often have a high number of children in part to help provide for when they are old. And a woman in Benin who gives birth to several children surely does not contribute more to the excess use of natural resources than a Swiss who has two cars, lives in a spacious and generously equipped apartment, and flies to a Caribbean island for vacation. The idea that a high reproduction rate of poor people threatens the natural environment and biodiversity of a planet that is too small is a misguided stereotype. Instead, it is the excessive use of goods and services by people in richer countries that threatens earth.



Hanspeter Wyss

Senior Program Officer, DECIG/KNOMAD, World Bank

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