Expat Integration — Is this really a problem?

June 4, 2012 — Leave a comment

Recently there has been a great deal of material written about expats in Switzerland. By expats, the specific call is against Highly skilled English speaking individuals and to a degree Germans residing in Switzerland and working at some of the world’s most successful firms.

The German-speaking Swiss are up in arms about the what they deem to be the development of parallel communities that are not integrating into Swiss culture. Of course the biggest issue is language. Many politicians and voters want to impose and have already imposed mandatory language skills when applying for different residency permits (You need a A2 level in German for a C Permit).

What is clearly not understood though is that the expectations of the people I’ll call “integrators” are built on old ideals that no longer apply to modern Switzerland.

Switzerland’s advantages for business are the following:
1. Taxation (companies can save millions)
2. Legal (companies as well as individuals can trust that the laws of the land are not arbitrary and that they will be treated fairly)
3. Location (Switzerland lies in the middle of Europe and is well connected to the world, a brilliant place to run an international company from)
4. Infrastructure (Swiss infrastructure is world class. The tax money is used wisely to ensure that people have more and better services than in other countries)

All of that said today’s expats are rarely coming to Switzerland to stay for a long time. Switzerland likes this. It’s great for maintaining low unemployment and ensuring minimal obligations to people who have worked here.

Because of the modern world we live in, many expats (UK residents and Germans alike) can easily travel back to their home countries at the weekends. When one works from 9-5 Monday – Friday, weekends would be integration time, but today it means time back home. Switzerland is essentially like the city, weekends are spent in the country.

Regarding language, this is not taken seriously by the state, companies, nor by most Swiss. The state as a whole has no unified requirements. When it comes to subsidizing, each canton does it differently. Zurich for instance has given the Migros Klubschule and ECAP a monopoly on German instruction. Businesses are more than willing to throw money at the problem, allowing for generous budgets to fund language instruction, but do not give their employees the time or incentive they need to learn German. As a language teacher, I sympathize with my students working over 45 hours a week, have a family, and are trying hard to learn German. Then of course there are the Swiss themselves: when an English speaking person tries to use their High German to order coffee, ask directions, make an appointment, or even just start a conversation the Swiss person will more often than not respond in English. This is demotivating to German learners and shows that the Swiss are not willing to help with linguistic integration.

Another interesting and very overlooked issue regarding integration is how many Swiss are equally not integrated in their communities. Even the city president of Dubendorf has stated that this is an issue. In a recent interview, he said that he does not want growth at any cost and doesn’t just want people moving to Dubendorf, but working in Zurich proper, essentially only using Dubendorf for affordable housing, rather, he would like to see engaged people who will enrich the community.

«Wir wollen nicht um jeden Preis wachsen», sagt Lothar Ziörjen. Das «Dorf» – wie er es nennt – brauche vor allem Leute, die sich integrieren und am Gemeindeleben teilnehmen. [Full article]

However, as the demands of work are constantly growing, people find it more difficult to allocate time for more social and civil activities. They are just trying to pay the rent. It should also not be over looked that other Swiss who move to different areas of Switzerland for work reasons act like their expat counterparts and return to their home regions at the weekend.

What is the solution to this issue? Is Switzerland being flooded by high-payed Anglophones that are taking away what it means to be Swiss? are they harming the economy or Swiss culture? The opposite is actually true. Switzerland is profiting from its expat community. The key thing to understand is that they are highly skilled workers, adding to Switzerland’s economic output. If the country is worried that we need too many foreigners they, would be smarter to invest in education instead of the fighter jets and help ensure that the native Swiss population is trained and skilled to fill the jobs of the future.

The reality of the issue being debated is that despite social media we are less less community oriented today than we have ever been. There is a current triumph of the ego, whereby everyone is busy taking care of themselves and not interacting with their neighbours let alone their bigger community. It is perhaps the awareness of how this will have long term negative consequences that makes some people insist on harping on expats. After all their language and financial success make them stick out. Then of course there is also a degree of jealousy, as Julia Morais from the Integration Office in Zurich told the Tages-Anzeiger.

If communes, cantons, and the state really want expats to integrate faster and better, then they will have to eliminate some of the exclusion practices that are essential to waking people’s interests in integration. If you can’t vote or express civil and political desires in the community and country in which you live, there is little incentive to integrate. The current practices of the integration offices of organizing special events that only attract expats will not help them build communities with other Swiss people.

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