EU immigration: Switzerland’s foreign workers in numbers

Foreign nationals living in Switzerland account for nearly 25 percent of the country’s population. Official figures reveal a lot of interesting facts about these people.

EU immigration: Switzerland’s foreign workers in numbers
Foreigners come to Switzerland from many countries. Photo by AFP

This information is even more relevant ahead of the nationwide referendum on September 27th, which seeks to restrict the number of EU immigrants coming to Switzerland. 

How many foreign nationals live in Switzerland?

Figures released by the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) show that 18,386 foreigners came to Switzerland between January and March 2020, which is 3,013 people more than in the same period last year. 

According to Federal Statistical Office, out of 2,176 million foreign nationals who live in Switzerland, the majority – about 1,434 million — come from the EU and EFTA states

The others (about 248,000 in total) are from non-EU countries like Kosovo, Macedonia and Turkey.

Immigrants from Africa, America (North and South) and Asia add up to around 365,000.

Switzerland's total population is just over 8.5 million.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland's EU free movement referendum could impact much more than immigration 

What are the main nationalities of Switzerland’s foreigners?

Italian (321,000), German (307,000), Portuguese (260,000) and French (139,000) citizens make up the majority of immigrants from the European Union.

The roughly 42,000 Britons who live in Switzerland are not counted in the EU statistics since the UK’s exit from the bloc.

Where in Switzerland do foreigners live?

A study released in June by the University of Geneva found “a strong foreign presence” in and around large cities, which are close to economic centres and job opportunities — such as the shores of Lake Geneva or Lake Zurich. 

The highest concentration of foreigners (62.4 percent) can be found in the Crissier suburb of Lausanne, according to the study.

The lowest number of foreign nationals, on the other hand, is in Röthenbach, located in the Bernese Emmental region, where there are only 37 foreigners among 1,172 residents.

The distribution of different nationalities across Switzerland varies widely and in many cases is language and geography-based. For instance, Germans, French, and Italians live mostly in their respective linguistic regions.

The Portuguese and Turks are usually concentrated in neighbourhoods with relatively cheap housing, regardless of the canton, researchers found.

“One can wonder about the existence of network effects, which would push the new members to establish themselves in the immediate entourage of the diaspora”, the study's authors noted.

Why do immigrants come to Switzerland?

According to research from University of Neuchâtel, most (36 percent) come for work or education. 

Looking at individual countries, the percentage of those who immigrate for professional reasons is 50 percent for EU and EFTA nationals, 46 percent for the UK, and 40 percent for North America.

Where are EU citizens working in Switzerland?

University of Neuchâtel showed that 60 percent of immigrants work in 'elementary occupations', defined as ‘routine tasks which mainly require the use of hand-held tools and often some physical effort’.

Nearly 50 percent are employed in factories, 40 percent in craft and related trades, and 30 percent in service and sales.

A quarter or less have managerial-level jobs or are considered as ‘professionals’, meaning that their jobs require a degree.

Other interesting facts:

• Over 37 percent of Switzerland’s population have migration background; 24 percent of them have foreign citizenship, while the rest are Swiss either by birth or naturalisation. 

• In 2018, the last year for which data is available, over 967,000 foreigners were granted Swiss citizenship. Once naturalised, these people no longer show in statistics as foreign residents.





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Worse housing, less money: How immigrants fare in Switzerland

In terms of living conditions, the population with a migrant background often lags behind their Swiss counterparts.

Worse housing, less money: How immigrants fare in Switzerland

Around 40 percent of Switzerland’s total population of 9 million have a migration background.

The Federal Statistical Office’s (FSO) Demography and Migration Section analysed how well (or not) these people live in Switzerland.

The results, published on Tuesday, indicate that in general, immigrants have “worse living and economic conditions” than the Swiss, especially in terms of housing as well as finances.

However, the report emphasised that “under no circumstances can migration status be considered as the only explanatory factor for the differences found between various population groups. Other variables, such as age, nationality, and education may also explain these differences.”

For instance, people coming from the EU / EFTA countries (Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein) typically do better than those from third nations.

Also, there are marked differences in the standard of living between the first and second generation of immigrants, with the latter (already born in Switzerland) usually enjoying better living conditions.

Let’s look at some of the specifics

In terms of finances, 14 percent of foreigners have trouble making ends meet at the end of each month, while that proportion is 5 percent for people without the migration background.

By the same token, 6 percent of foreign nationals depend on social assistance, against 2 percent of Swiss people.

As far as housing is concerned, 20 percent of immigrants live in accommodation that are considered inferior (for instance, in terms of noise), versus 14 percent of non-migrant population.

There are, however, positives as well

“Over the last decade, the population with a migrant background has nevertheless seen an improvement in its situation for certain indicators, such as the difficulties in making ends meet and the poverty rate,” the FSO report states.

“Their median annual disposable income has also increased.”

It is important to note, too, that these figures concern primarily low-income people; living conditions and financial situation of those who are highly qualified and / or are university graduates and specialists in their field, is much better.

Within that group, in fact, foreigners sometimes earn higher wages than the Swiss.

READ ALSO: In which jobs in Switzerland do foreign workers earn more than the Swiss? 

Higher immigration

An increased number of foreign nationals have settled in the country in the past years, fuelling forecasts of population growth exceeding the 10-million mark in the near future.

In 2023, for instance, a total of 181,553 people immigrated to Switzerland, of which nearly 72 percent came from an EU or EFTA member state.

Given the above data — that is, lower living standards than non-immigrants — you may be wondering why so many people choose to come to Switzerland in the first place. 

The answer comes from another FSO study.

It indicated that about 40 percent move here for professional reasons, that is, because Swiss wages are higher (and sometimes by a lot) than nearly everywhere else in Europe.

That study also found that almost two-thirds of immigrants — more than 60 percent — want to stay in Switzerland permanently, with as many planning to obtain Swiss citizenship.