Moving Cities
About the city


Pioneering urban citizenship with a “City ID” for all

Key Takeaways

  • 1

    Zurich shows that even in a conservative environment such as the canton of Zurich, progressive and innovative migration policies can not only be conceived but also implemented.

  • 2

    The Zurich City Card is based on a particularly inclusive idea: It combines access to essential basic services for undocumented residents with a card that can be used by all other city residents as well. It is thus a card for all citizens of Zurich, regardless of their status.

What is unique about the city?

Political recognition for all: Zurich is one of the larger European cities to be considered a pioneer of the so-called “Urban Citizenship” initiative. The initiative is part of the drive to use creative municipal measures to give rights to undocumented migrants who have no right to remain. No other European city has institutionalised rights for undocumented migrants to the extent that Zurich has. Civil society initiatives are pushing for full political recognition of all those who live in the city as equal citizens, and are finding the left-wing state government responsive to the suggestions.

With the introduction of the ‘Züri City Card’ we are taking an important step forward so that no one in Zurich has to fear for their existence

Tiba Ponnuthurai, the executive member of the SP Stadt Zürich

What are the greatest achievements so far?

A City ID improving the life of undocumented migrants: For years, civil society groups and, most recently, the left-leaning city council have been working on a “City ID” called the "Züri City Card.". It works to make life easier for the estimated 10,000 undocumented migrants living in one of the world’s richest and most expensive cities. According to a city council decision at the end of 2020, the legal basis for the “Zürich City Card” were to be established over the following years. Finally, in May 2022, a majority of the Zurich city population voted in a referendum on the 'Züri City Card' to finance the development of the project to the tune of 3.2 million Swiss francs. The city has now been given the task of developing a concrete proposal for the introduction of the card for all citizens of the city, irrespective of their residence status, by 2024/2025.

Political activities and advocacy beyond the city level

Zurich, which is governed by a left-wing coalition, is a member of a number of relevant city networks in the anti-racism movement: "Eurocities", "Mayors Migration Council", "Solidarity Cities" as well as the "Cities Coalition against Racism". In each case, Zurich has a special role because of its position as a capital and its pioneering measures in the field of “Urban Citizenship”. In the last few years, Zurich has supported the Greek city of Thessaloniki in planning informal educational opportunities for unaccompanied minors. Zurich has also spoken out politically on the issue of the direct admission of refugees from camps at the EU's external borders. After the fire at the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos in September of 2020, Zurich's chief of social affairs Raphael Golta stated: “We are ready to take in more refugees.”

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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.