Switzerland, land of European immigration

Switzerland has one of the highest percentages of foreigners in its population, most of whom are Europeans. Has it always been this way? We look back at 166 years of immigration to Switzerland. 

This content was published on December 18, 2017 - 08:00

More than 80% of the foreign population living in Switzerland is from another European country. Immigration from Germany, Italy and, to a lesser extent, France has a long history. The graphic below looks at 166 years of immigration in Switzerland.

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At the end of the 19th century, railway network expansion led to the first wave of migrants to modern-day Switzerland. At the time, immigration had been almost exclusively from neighbouring countries.

The post-war economic boom also resulted in an upsurge in jobs. Between 1951 and 1970 Switzerland experienced a significant influx of migrants. It stagnated in the 1970s and 1980s, accelerating again in the past 30 years.

Italy and Spain were the main suppliers of workers up until the end of the 1970s. As their national economies improved, Switzerland started attracting more people from other countries, notably from Portugal and the former Yugoslavia, following the conflicts of the 1990s.

More recently, Switzerland’s healthy economy and introduction of the free movement of people accord attracted tens of thousands of workers, mainly from European Union countries.

The profile of immigrants has also changed over time. While in the past migrants were largely unqualified manual workers, today more EU nationals in Switzerland have completed higher education than Swiss.

Although the number of foreigners in Switzerland is particularly high (around a quarter of the population), it’s worth noting that Switzerland has very strict citizenship criteria compared with other countries.

Swiss nationality is not automatically granted to foreigners born in Switzerland; in 2016, a fifth of the “foreign” population had been born in Switzerland. Among the foreigners born outside the country, nearly half (44%) had lived in Switzerland permanently for ten years or more.


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