About the city


The progressive stronghold of Switzerland

Key Takeaways

  • 1

    A positive attitude towards migrants and anti-racist civil society within the Bernese administration contributes to a cooperation of trust between the city and civil society.

  • 2

    The city's commitment to the importance of local civil society initiatives is reflected in its Integration Award (2004 - 2018) and Social Award, with which the city expresses its recognition and appreciation of this work.

What is unique about the city?

A special role within Switzerland: Bern, which is governed by the left, has publicly and intensively committed itself to taking in refugees since 2015. Like most capitals, Bern plays a special role in the national political structure. For this reason, it has had an important political function for the largely conservative nation of Switzerland. The city government has repeatedly spoken out against the federal government in favour of taking in additional refugees.

To accommodate 20 people from Moria is far too little for the capital of the rich country of Switzerland. Bern could easily provide financially for 500 people, and accommodation would be feasible in the short term.

Motion put forward to the municipal parliament of Bern by the Green-Alternative Party (GaP), Labour Party (PdA) and Alternative Left (AL), November 2020

What is the focus of local migration policies?

Shaping local admission policies: Bern is one of two cities in Switzerland that has its own migration office. This gives the city slightly more room to shape immigration law, which is usually decided at the cantonal level, and enables it to shape local admission policy. The combination of a left-wing government and a pro-active civil society has given rise to numerous anti-racist projects in Bern, all of which are concerned with facilitating the integration of newcomers with and without documents.

What are the greatest achievements so far?

The digital City ID: In 2017, Bern was one of the first Swiss municipalities to establish, in cooperation with the Protestant Church, an advice centre that supports qualified migrants on their way to gaining employment which matches their qualifications. The planned introduction of a digital City Card that will facilitate urban citizenship for the local undocumented community would be a pioneering achievement. It would increase access to multiple local services for undocumented residents, leading to increased recognition and better living conditions.

Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level

The collaboration between local networks such as "Wir sind alle Bern” (We are all Bern) or the “Netzwerk Migrantensolidarität” (Migrant Solidarity Network) and local left-wing politicians has ensured that Bern has been increasingly active on the institutional level in advocating together with other Swiss cities for the direct reception of refugees. In November 2020, the municipal parliament passed a resolution which insisted that the city of Bern should take in not 20, but 500 refugees from Moria, reasoning that 20 was far too small a number for the capital city of the rich country of Switzerland. The “urgent motion” was carried by a large majority. City Councillor Franziska Teuscher stated to the council that Bern would continue to lobby the federal government for the immediate admission of additional refugees. To this end, the city of Bern joined forces with nine other large cities.

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The city report contains more information about the city’s migration and inclusion policies and selected local approaches. Report from 2021, updated in 2023.

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Political context of Switzerland

Migration policy in Switzerland

In Switzerland, responsibility for citizenship, immigration and refugee admission lies with the federal government – more precisely with the Federal Council. The Federal Department of Justice and Police (FDJP) is responsible for the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM). The SEM oversees all matters concerning foreigners, such as issuing entry visas, entry bans, or naturalisation. It is also responsible for recognising foreign refugees. The subordinate regional authorities, cantons and municipalities nevertheless have some scope for action. These authorities have used their powers in cantonal integration programs (KIP) since 2014. For the asylum sector, KIPs play a role in cantonal support services for asylum seekers in the areas of housing, health, social assistance, language acquisition and labour market integration.

Historical background

Similarly to Germany, Switzerland’s economic upswing after World War II was also based on the recruitment of “guest workers” until tightened immigration conditions slowed down labour migration in the 1960s. After 1991, the so-called “three-circle model” was applied, which regulated the entry of labour migrants on the basis of their countries of origin. The “first circle” included persons from EU and EFTA countries, who were allowed to enter comparatively easily. The “second circle” consisted of countries that were considered to be “culturally close” to Switzerland and were connected through strong trade and migration relations, such as Canada, the USA and some Central and Eastern European countries. For their citizens, immigration was possible under certain restrictions. From all other states (the “third circle”), only highly qualified specialists were allowed to come to Switzerland in exceptional cases. In 1998, the “three circles” were replaced by the “dual admission system”. Since then, workers from EU/EFTA countries have been allowed to come if no domestic unemployed persons are available on the labour market. For nationals from non-EU/EFTA countries, exceptions are only possible under special circumstances. The Geneva Refugee Convention has been in force in Switzerland since 1955. Nevertheless, the country has mainly offered protection to people fleeing communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Switzerland has only sporadically taken in UNHCR contingent refugees. A series of asylum law reforms since the 1990s have made access more difficult for asylum seekers. In 2008, the Dublin Regulation came into force and since then, Switzerland has transferred asylum seekers to the responsible Dublin states.

Key developments of recent years

Swiss migration policy is strongly influenced by the parliamentary presence of the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party (SVP). Its influence has led, among other things, to Switzerland, as the home of both UNHCR and IOM, putting its agreement to the long-negotiated UN Global Compact on Migration on hold, in September 2018. This was, at the time, a fatal signal for migration diplomacy, given that Switzerland had co-led international negotiations on the Compact.

In 2010, following a racist campaign, the SVP put its proposal “For the Deportation of Criminal Foreigners”, or “deportation initiative”, to a referendum that saw nearly 53 % of people vote in its favour. Since then, even people from families who have lived in Switzerland for several generations can be deported after committing a crime. In 2009, following an equally racist campaign, the SVP brought about a majority decision to ban the construction of minarets.

In March 2019, an asylum law reform came into force, according to which all asylum procedures have to be completed within just 140 days. Asylum seekers have since been housed in newly established “federal asylum centres” (BAZ) for the duration of the accelerated procedure. Appeals now only have short deadlines. Those who are willing to return home before their first asylum hearing receive a cash grant of 1,000 Swiss francs to assist with their voluntary return.

An SVP referendum proposing a “limitation initiative” that sought to ban the EU's free movement of people, enshrined in the bilateral treaties between Switzerland and the EU, failed in 2020.

Progressive campaigns and their achievements

In October 2020, Wa Baile, a black Swiss citizen, pulled off a far-reaching victory in his fight against racist police stop and searches. With the civil society initiative “Alliance against Racial Profiling”, consisting of activists, academics, people from the cultural sector and human rights organisations, Baile filed strategic lawsuits against an unfounded police stop-and-search check at Zurich's main train station. Following defeats in several instances, the Zurich Administrative Court finally ruled in October 2020 that there was not enough objective evidence to justify the stop and search done on Baile and that it was therefore unlawful. At the same time, the case has been pending before the European Court of Human Rights since 2018 and could put an end to the practice of police checks on black people with no reasonable grounds.

In 2016, anti-racist groups succeeded in preventing a tightening of deportation practices. The right-wing SVP had launched a popular initiative to make appeals against the deportation of foreign criminals impossible. Several alliances made up of NGOs, politicians, activists and professors publicly opposed the planned reform, and in February 2016, it was rejected by a majority of voters.