Swiss impose stricter visa rules for Chinese

April 28, 2006

Switzerland's federal Government has decided to impose stricter controls on entry visas for Chinese students, sparking protests from universities and cantonal governments, writes Paul Bompard.

The clampdown comes after it emerged that many young Chinese entered Switzerland with student visas and then disappeared, becoming illegal immigrants in Switzerland or neighbouring countries.

According to the French-language tabloid 24Heures , the immigration scam was being run by "the Chinese Mafia".

There are rumours that the restrictions are Swiss retaliation for Chinese mass production of cheap copies of Swiss watches and cuckoo clocks.

Normally, the concession of student visas is the responsibility of each canton. But now, the Bern Government, following complaints from France and Italy, has announced that all visas for Chinese students must be vetted by the Federal Office for Migrations.

This has touched a nerve. In Switzerland, jurisdiction is divided between the federal Government and the cantons, and between French-speaking Switzerland and the German-speaking majority.

French-speaking cantons are particularly incensed by the change. Many educational institutions in these cantons have been doing a roaring trade with Chinese students in recent years.

"The Geneva Council of State is opposed to this measure, which stigmatises Chinese students," declared Bernard Gut, secretary-general of Geneva's Department of Institutions. "This discriminatory measure damages the image of Switzerland; it is a delicate issue, and it is diplomatically dangerous to impose such sanctions in the context of bilateral relations."

According to Pascal Garcin, spokesman for the University of Geneva, "all Switzerland's rectors have decided to protest".

Ivardo Nischi, secretary-general of the Swiss University Conference, laughingly dismissed the watch vendetta as an urban legend.

"As far as I know there is no truth in this," he said. "There are also few problems with Chinese students in the major universities, since most students are supported by grants, either Swiss or Chinese, which they would obviously forfeit if they disappeared."

"Where there have been problems is in private, independent institutions, for instance in some hotel schools. There have indeed been cases of students disappearing, or of students arriving in Switzerland and discovering that the training, the services or the qualifications to be obtained are not as originally advertised," he added.

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