Until recently, the social protection of Swiss abroad was left to ad hoc initiatives by the Federal Council, such as the aid operation to support Swiss abroad following World War II in 1957, as well as to charitable organisations, non-profit organisations, cantonal and municipal institutions. The Federal Council counted 57 organisations providing social support to Swiss abroad in the early 1970s. It also estimated the federal expenditure for Swiss abroad at around 85,000 francs per year, vis-à-vis a cantonal expenditure of about 63,900 francs per year. At the time, it was not unusual that a Swiss expatriate originally from Zürich, for example, obtained social support from his canton while his neighbour from Grisons did not. The uneven social protection accorded to Swiss abroad, as well as the need to coordinate the interventions and the new Article 45 on the rights and obligations of the Swiss abroad introduced in 1966, inspired the Federal Assembly to approve the Federal Act of 21 March 1973 on Social Assistance and Loans to Swiss Citizens Abroad.Footnote 17 It was the first time the federal institutions took the matter of welfare assistance for Swiss nationals abroad in their own hands.
Today, Article 22 of the Federal Act on Swiss Citizens and Institutions Abroad stipulates that “the Confederation grants social assistance to the Swiss Abroad who are in need”. Swiss nationals abroad who find themselves in need of social protection of any kind, be it matters of health, pension, unemployment, or minimum resources, can contact the Swiss representation responsible for their place of residence abroad. This is part of an official policy called Social security for Swiss citizens abroad (Sozialhilfe für Auslandschweizerinnen und Auslandschweizer) (Table 21.2).
Consulates and embassies normally try to find ways to include the person in the social welfare of the host country, except for emergency cases like hospitalisation, when the representation grants the essential emergency aid and notifies the Consular Directorate (CD).Footnote 18 Most often, however, the person fills an application which is first reviewed and completed by the representation responsible for her/his place of residence abroad and transfers it together with a report and request to the CD at the FDFA in Bern. The CD decides whether to accept applications following a set of guidelines internal to the ministry. In urgent cases, the representation grants the essential emergency aid and notifies the CD. The CD may authorise representations to grant additional social assistance on their own initiative. In addition to una tantum financial help, this policy also allows for continuous funding over the years, provided that the individual stipulates a plan together with the CD. Every year, the CD submits to Parliament a budget, part of the broader budget for the FDFA. The amount of money spent by the CD has been steadily decreasing over the last 5 years, from 1,7 million francs in 2010 to 1,1 million at the end of 2017 (Table 21.3).
Interestingly, according to Article 25 of the Federal Act on Swiss Citizens and Institutions Abroad, Swiss nationals might be ineligible for social assistance if they have another nationality that is considered preponderant. The internal guidelines of the ministry explain how to determine which of the nationalities is preponderant, namely: (i) the circumstances which led to the applicant’s acquisition of the foreign nationality; (ii) the state where the applicant resided during childhood and training; (iii) the length of stay in the current State of residence; (iv) the applicant’s relations with Switzerland.Footnote 19 There are some specific situations when, even though the foreign nationality of the applicant is preponderant, social assistance can still be granted on an exceptional basis.Footnote 20 It may be that over time the predominant nationality changes. If social assistance has begun to be granted when Swiss nationality predominates, assistance benefits granted on a regular basis may be maintained even if, over time, the foreign nationality has become preponderant. If a person receiving social assistance acquires a foreign nationality, the payment of assistance benefits should be re-examined.
The persons in need may be advised to return to Switzerland if it is in their or their family’s interests to do so. In such cases, the Federal Council shall not or shall no longer pay social assistance benefits abroad. In the event of a return to Switzerland, the Federal Council anticipates the expenses to cover the cost of the travel. It may also anticipate the expenses if the person in need decides to return to Switzerland of her/his own accord. The FDFA runs a counselling service on returning to Switzerland, providing information on entry and living conditions to Swiss nationals returning to Switzerland from abroad.
Article 35 of the Federal Act on Swiss Persons and Institutions Abroad establishes that social assistance recipients must repay the social assistance benefits if they no longer require them and are able to support themselves and their families.Footnote 21 Social assistance benefits may be claimed back up to 10 years after the last payment, unless the receivable was stipulated contractually or by the CD. However, not all the recipients of social assistance are able to pay back the money they have received.
If Swiss nationals die abroad, the foreign authority will inform the local Swiss representation in the country concerned. If this is not done, family members may give the foreign death certificate to a Swiss representation, which will send the document to the deceased’s municipality of origin. If a person wishes to be buried in Switzerland, the Swiss representation will also prepare the necessary documents for repatriation. The Federal Council may cover the costs of funerals for Swiss nationals who die abroad and who are without means, provided neither their relatives nor the receiving state is willing to pay the costs.
In addition to these policies, the Federal Council supports institutions that promote relations between Swiss nationals abroad and their ties to Switzerland. Today, more than 750 Swiss associations and institutions overseas are affiliated to the OSA, including humanitarian groups, traditional Swiss clubs, sporting associations, choirs, charities, and family associations. These diverse associations constitute “micro-communities of solidarity, where Swiss identity can be easily transmitted” (Leu 2016: 31). In Paris for example, the Swiss Society of Charity has been operating since 1820 and currently has around 20 volunteers who go to the aid of Swiss nationals who are sick or lonely, help them with administrative matters and make hospital visits. Some of these associations are representative of specific cantons. In Argentina and Brazil, for instance, the association Valaisans du Monde is well established; in Brazil, the association Nova Friburgo represents Swiss nationals from the canton of Fribourg. These associations work closely to Swiss diplomatic missions: although they do not formally participate in the decision-making process, in some countries, they provide information that can help the missions deciding on whether requests for welfare assistance are legitimate. In a few countries, Swiss diplomatic missions rely on these associations to provide first hands-on support to Swiss nationals. While providing social help, these associations also ensure an enduring cultural connection between Swiss nationals abroad and the country of origin. The OAS, for example, supports elderly Swiss citizens with poor economic possibilities who wish to return to their homeland for a visit. Requests must be submitted to the Swiss embassy or consulate where the person resides. The financial support however excludes coverage of unpaid stay taxes (e.g. for overstayers) or other debts incurred in the host country which make it impossible to leave.
The following pages describe in detail the services and policies for five key social protection areas. They focus mostly on EU cooperation agreements because most Swiss nationals abroad reside in these countries.
Swiss nationals in the EU benefit from the bilateral Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons signed on 21 June 1999, while Swiss nationals in Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway benefit from the EFTA Convention signed in Stockholm on 4 January 1960. In principle, anyone who is gainfully employed abroad or is a family member of an individual employed abroad is not insured under the compulsory Swiss OASI/DI scheme. However, they may take out such insurance under certain conditions. Individuals who are gainfully employed in an EU/EFTA Member State by a Swiss employer and are paid by this employer can continue to be covered by the OASI/DI/APG schemes and the unemployment insurance scheme if their salary is paid in Switzerland, by the Swiss employer; or, alternatively, if the employer agrees that the employee continues to be insured in Switzerland. Insurance cover, however, can only be continued if the individual concerned has been insured for five consecutive years in the compulsory or optional OASI/DI scheme, either directly prior to taking up employment abroad or – for individuals who have been posted in an EU/EFTA Member State while still insured in Switzerland – directly after the termination of their employment abroad. For continued insurance during employment in an EU country, Swiss nationals and citizens of EU Member States can use insurance periods in EU or EFTA countries to count towards this five-year period. The same applies for EFTA nationals for continued insurance during employment in Iceland, Liechtenstein or Norway. Continued insurance cover in Switzerland does not exempt a person from any social insurance obligations in his/her country of employment. Swiss consulates and embassies can assist Swiss abroad in their dealings with unemployment benefits, by helping them to navigate the legislation.
For Swiss nationals who move abroad, unemployment benefits can be paid abroad under certain circumstances and for a maximum of 3 months. After registering with the Swiss employment services, insured persons must remain available to the competent employment service for 4 weeks. Once their claim for export has been approved, insured persons may move to the country where they want to look for a job, notify the competent employment services of their arrival and comply with that country’s control procedures.
If the person does not find employment within 3 months, he/she can return to Switzerland and continue to receive unemployment insurance benefits. The CD of the FDFA provides a special service for Swiss nationals abroad who intend to return to the home country. In particular, the CD helps preparing the job search in Switzerland, forwarding job applications to the respective cantonal employment offices.
21.2.2 Health Care
The Federal Law on Health Insurance holds that health insurance is solely mandatory for those living in Switzerland. However, agreements concluded with the EU and EFTA have brought about exceptions to this rule for the following categories of Swiss nationals abroad: cross-border workers and their family members; pensioners and their family members; Swiss nationals abroad drawing unemployment benefits in Switzerland and their family members, as well as family members of temporary residents in Switzerland. As a general principle, these individuals have the possibility to choose between health care in their country of residence or in Switzerland. Swiss pensioners abroad must continue to hold basic health insurance with a Swiss provider for themselves and their dependents; but this rule does not apply to pensioners living in Austria, Italy, Germany, France, and Spain, as one of the conditions that are part of the Agreement with the EU on the Free Movement of Persons signed on 21 June 1999. The rule also does not apply to those individuals who are receiving a pension from their country of residence, even if the pension received in the country of residence is lower than the Swiss pension. Finally, if the pensioner is domiciled in a country from which he/she does not receive a pension but receives a Swiss pension and a pension from another EU/EFTA state, he/she must stipulate insurance in the country in which he/she has held insurance for the longest period for retirement pension purposes.
For all other categories of Swiss nationals living in EU/EFTA Member States, the Agreement on the freedom of movement of persons concluded between Switzerland and these countries establishes coordination of the social insurance systems. Within the health insurance framework, the Agreement stipulates that the appropriate place for health care coverage is the country in which the person is working. For example, a Swiss citizen working and residing in Italy will be governed by the Italian health insurance regime.
When a Swiss national emigrates to a state outside of the EU/EFTA, it is no longer possible for her/him to remain in the compulsory basic health insurance scheme. Health insurance companies have the possibility to privately provide health insurance plans for abroad.
The OSA offers information services in these matters, such as answering legal questions, indicating companies that propose international health insurance, explaining the consequences of emigration on the social insurance scheme, and providing information on the specific regulations concerning health legislation.
Consulates can assist individuals finding a doctor or setting up a visit in the hospital. The policy of social security for Swiss citizens abroad also allows consulates to anticipate the money to cover to emergency health care, if needed.
Independently of the country where they reside, all Swiss citizens are entitled to a Swiss old-age pension if they have paid their pension contribution for at least 1 year. They are also entitled to a Swiss invalidity pension if they have paid their contribution for at least 3 years. The old-age and survivors’ insurance (OASI) and the disability insurance (DI) are compulsory only for individuals living in Switzerland. Swiss nationals abroad have the possibility, in principle, of joining the optional OASI/DI scheme. This optional insurance aims to avoid a situation where, in the event of an accident or at retirement age, they or their survivors, may not receive a pension at all or only receive one on the basis of the years of pension contribution paid under the compulsory pension insurance system and contributions paid as such. In fact, failure to pay one single year of contribution to the voluntary scheme leads, as a general rule, to a reduction of the pension. Those who wish to join the voluntary OASI insurance scheme should present their request to the Swiss Compensation Office (SCO) in Geneva. This request must be sent within 1 year of leaving the compulsory insurance scheme and the cost of the insurance depends on the employment condition – past and present – of the individual.
21.2.4 Family-Related Benefits
Family-related benefits are not accessible to Swiss nationals abroad (although Swiss family allowances can also be paid for children residing in the EU/EFTA). The Federal Council, however, provides some indirect support to families abroad through financial incentives for the education of pupils in Swiss schools and for short return trips to Switzerland for Swiss children who live abroad. These activities are coordinated by the Federal Office of Culture.
Swiss schools abroad are subsidised by the Swiss Confederation provided they meet the requirements of the Federal Act on the Provision of Swiss Education Abroad (Swiss Schools Act) of 21 March 2014.Footnote 22 Currently, the Swiss Confederation recognises 18 Swiss schools abroad, five of which are in South America, four in Italy, two in Spain, and two in Asia (Table 21.4).
The Federal Office of Culture is responsible for the promotion and recognition of Swiss schools abroad and it works together with the association educationsuisse, which represents the interests of the Swiss schools with the Swiss authorities. The association also provides information about the range of international schools supported by the Federal Council. Swiss families abroad who do not live in the vicinity of a Swiss school, but who wish to provide their children with Swiss training, can apply for support from the Confederation for the following three actions: (1) recruiting a Swiss teacher at a German, French, or international school abroad; (2) establishing courses on the history and geography of Switzerland and national languages; (3) purchasing of Swiss educational material. The promoter or applicant must in any case be an association of Swiss parents or a Swiss organization.
In addition to this service, the Federal Office of Culture also supports the Foundation for Young Swiss Abroad (FYSA, Stiftung für junge Auslandschweizer). This charity provides resources for Swiss children living abroad to spend some time in Switzerland. The charity was initially established on the initiative of a small group of volunteers who, in 1917, brought to Switzerland 280 Swiss children from war zones in Germany. Children spent a few weeks of holiday and were hosted by families. The cost of this initiative was met in full by the Federal Council. The following year, a private committee was formed under the name of “Swiss Aid”, which set itself the objective of continuing and building upon the aid work started. In October 1979, a decision was made to change the name of the Foundation from “Swiss Aid” to the “Foundation for Young Swiss Abroad”. Today, the Foundation relies on the administrative structures of the OSA, therefore relying indirectly on federal funding. It is composed of ten cantonal committees, which organise annual fundraising events. In total, the Federal Office of Culture spends about 20 million francs per year on Swiss schools abroad, which represents 15% of the total budget.
21.2.5 Economic Hardship
There is no policy concerning the guaranteed minimum resources for Swiss nationals abroad. However, consulates and embassies often provide financial support to Swiss nationals abroad who do not have sufficient economic resources through the Social security for Swiss citizens abroad overseen by the Consular Directorate (CD) at the FDFA in Bern. As previously noted, this policy allows for structured welfare funding. According to the government officials interviewed for this research, the majority of recipients of social assistance abroad have received funding from the CD for several years now.