Fewer arrivals but more foreign residents: How Switzerland’s coronavirus epidemic has affected immigration

Immigration to Switzerland fell sharply in the first half of 2020 as a direct result of the pandemic. Despite this, the foreign resident population in Switzerland has grown.

Fewer arrivals but more foreign residents: How Switzerland's coronavirus epidemic has affected immigration
Tourists take a picture of a large Swiss flag. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

New figures from the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) have shown the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on migration to Switzerland. 

For the first time in decades, Switzerland put in place strict controls on immigration which led to a significant fall in immigrants from January to June in 2020. 

In March, Switzerland’s Federal Council temporarily halted entry to Switzerland for all except residents, citizens and cross-border workers. 

READ: How Switzerland avoided a coronavirus 'catastrophe' by protecting cross-border workers 

Even those who possessed a valid work permit were restricted from moving to Switzerland unless there was an “overriding public interest” in their profession, i.e. health care, energy, logistics and other limited areas. 

The result was a fall in immigration – although the number of foreign residents still managed to grow during this time. 

Decline in new arrivals

Although the pandemic began to sweep through Switzerland in late February, it was not until late March when the first immigration controls came into place – meaning that the impact wasn’t seen until April. 

Immigration in April was down 28 percent, with 5,132 people arriving in Switzerland. In May, there was a 42 percent decrease on figures from the previous year, with 4,208 making the move Swiss-wards. 

While travel restrictions were largely lifted on June 8th, the 6,460 people who made the move in June was eight percent below the previous year’s figure. 

But why are there now more foreigners in Switzerland?

Despite the decrease, a total of 58,730 people made the move to Switzerland in the first six months of 2020 – a higher figure than in 2019. 

There were two main reasons for the increase. 

Firstly, pre-pandemic migration numbers from January and February were higher in 2020 than in 2019. 

The second was a decline in emigration – i.e. foreign residents leaving Switzerland – by 14.4 percent, due at least in part to the pandemic. 


The result is a net increase of 25,995 people in Switzerland from January until June in 2020 – 1,323 more than from the same period in 2019.

As the SEM wrote “the coronavirus pandemic and the protective measures taken in Switzerland and most other countries have had a significant impact on migration. In the permanent foreign resident population, there was a sharp decline in both effective immigration (from abroad) and emigration.”

The figures are however positive for Swiss businesses. 

“Thanks to the immigration of workers from the EU / EFTA / UK, the needs of the Swiss economy could be met,” wrote the SEM. 

“The corresponding data show that the occupational groups that ensure the availability of essential goods and services were exempt from the restrictions.”

How many foreigners live in Switzerland? 

At the end of June, almost 2.2 million foreigners lived in Switzerland – roughly one quarter of the country’s total population. 

READ: Where do Switzerland's foreigners all live? 

Two-thirds have lived in Switzerland for longer than five years. 

Roughly 75 percent of the foreigners who live in Switzerland come from EU or EFTA countries (1,455,231). 


Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Should we be concerned by the re-emergence of Covid-19 in Switzerland?

As new coronavirus variants have been detected in Switzerland in past weeks and the government is preparing to re-start vaccinations against the disease, you may be wondering whether Covid will become a major public health issue again.

Should we be concerned by the re-emergence of Covid-19 in Switzerland?

On Monday, Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) said it will start vaccinating at-risk people against Covid in mid-October.

According to internal documents, authorities are ordering 1.3 million vaccine doses from each of manufacturers Moderna and Pfizer. In addition, a delivery from Novavax and another from Moderna are expected in October, according to CH Media.

READ ALSO: Switzerland’s Covid vaccine programme to restart in autumn

What Covid variants have been detected in Switzerland and are they dangerous?

Currently, there are two: the Eris variant (EG.5) and Pirola (BA.2.86),

Pirola spreads faster than Eris and is under increased surveillance by health authorities.

While both variants are contagious, so far there are no signs that they are as dangerous as Alpha and Delta strains that had become predominant during the pandemic’s peak.

“Compared to the pandemic years 2020 and 2021, the situation has changed significantly: among people under 65 who do not have risk factors, the probability of a serious form of Covid-19 is minimal,” FOPH said on Monday. “Among vulnerable people, on the other hand, the risk is significantly higher.”

FOPH identifies ‘vulnerable’ people as those over 65, as well as individuals suffering from cancer, diabetes, heart problems, serious respiratory impairments, and other chronic diseases, along with those whose immunity system is weakened.

What can we expect, Covid-wise, in the fall and winter?

According to FOPH, the variants currently in circulation present new mutations which “partially escape the immunity acquired by the population. Additionally, the protection afforded by vaccination (or previous infection) gradually diminishes over time.”

Due to these two factors, to which will be added increased contact in indoor spaces, the FOPH expects an increase in the number of infections this fall and winter.

Overall, however, epidemiologist Andreas Cerny expects fewer serious cases than in previous years, especially among people who are not in high-risk groups (as mentioned above).

In terms of measures, keeping distance, testing, or wearing a mask are not currently on the agenda for population at large.

However, according to Christoph Berger, head of Switzerland’s Vaccination Commission, it would make sense if everyone took precautionary measures for themselves.

“Anyone who is contagious should either stay at home, wear a mask, or keep their distance to protect others,” he said. “You should use common sense. If you cough badly, you shouldn’t go visit your grandmother.”

Why is Covid still around?

“Just as there are always new epidemic waves with flu or other viral respiratory diseases, Covid infections are also increasing from time to time, probably several times a year for the time being and especially in autumn. We have to come to terms with that,” epidemiologist Christian Althaus from the University of Bern said in an interview.

Should you get vaccinated?

Whether you have already had Covid vaccines in the past (one vaccine and three boosters have been given in Switzerland since the end of 2021), or haven’t had any shots at all, FOPH said the new doses will protect vulnerable people from developing a serious form of the disease.

Will the vaccine be mandatory?
As during previous coronavirus waves, the government will not make vaccination mandatory.
It will remain a recommendation.

Who will pay for the vaccination?

FOPH has not said, but in previous campaigns, shots were free of charge for residents of Switzerland.