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University of Basel

People on the Move – Dossier on Migration (02/2016)

Vote influences where people choose to live

Text: Christoph Dieffenbacher

Negative attitudes towards foreigners can influence where they decide to live in Switzerland. This is the conclusion reached by the economists Michaela Slotwinski and Alois Stutzer from Basel University, based on an analysis of the minaret vote and data on where foreigners in Switzerland choose to live.

It was a memorable vote. The point at issue may have been an architectural feature, but it was one with symbolic importance. In November 2009, the anti-minaret initiative was approved by the Swiss electorate, with over 57 percent of the votes, resulting in a ban on the construction of new minarets on mosques across the country. The popular vote was preceded by an emotionally charged campaign featuring crude slogans and posters on which minarets were portrayed as missiles. Almost all parties had opposed the popular initiative of the Swiss People’s Party, but predictions and polls proved wrong. Following the vote, Switzerland came in for a fair amount of criticism internationally.

The young researcher Michaela Slotwinski, together with Alois Stutzer, Professor of Political Economy at the Faculty of Business and Economics at Basel University, has examined one consequence of the minaret vote. The measure they used as an indicator of negative attitudes towards migrants at municipal level was support for the initiative, combined with the results of comparable votes in the past. The striking aspect of the minaret vote was that in certain municipalities there was very clear and surprising shift away from the pattern in previous referendums, with voters expressing greater reservations about foreigners.

Sixty percent fall

As part of a «natural experiment», the researchers link the surprising results in some municipalities to statistical material on the moving behavior of foreign households before and after the vote. Their study shows that the referendum had an impact on decisions about where to move. Initially, the likelihood of immigrants moving to a municipality that had adopted a more hostile stance towards foreigners in the vote fell by about 60 percent. The number of arrivals returned to previous levels only about five months after polling day. The researchers infer that many of those planning to move had evidently chosen another, more tolerant municipality.

Furthermore, Slotwinski explains, the change in moving behavior after the minaret vote was evident not just among immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries, but among immigrants in general – people in no way affected by a minaret ban. Highly skilled people, in particular, seemed to react most sensitively to the presence of negative attitudes.

Information flows

«To explain this behavior, we have to assume that there is good networking within migrant communities,» Professor Alois Stutzer comments. «Apparently, they have good social contacts and well-functioning information flows, so news about which municipalities took a negative stance towards foreigners in the vote gets around quickly.» There was also more media coverage of those municipalities where the vote came as surprise.

Slotwinski and Stutzer say that one can only speculate as to the reasons why this change in moving behavior was followed by a return to the previous figures. The statistics show that there was more vacant accommodation in the municipalities in question after the vote, which may have brought down rents. In turn, this may have prompted more foreigners to move in again, based on the principle, «They may not like us here, but the rents are cheap.» This stabilization in moving behavior may also be linked to new arrivals having got used to the Swiss people’s negative attitudes or to a reduction in media coverage of the subject. 

Alois Stutzer has been Professor of Political Economy at the University of Basel since 2009. 

Michaela Slotwinski focuses her research at the University of Basel on issues at the interface of politics and economics.

More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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