ZURICH (Reuters) - Migration to Switzerland slowed in early 2016, authorities said on Tuesday, as the country moves closer towards its self-imposed deadline to curb the influx of European Union workers.
Switzerland is two-thirds of the way through a three-year timetable to enforce a binding 2014 referendum vote in favor of migration quotas which would violate a bilateral pact with Brussels guaranteeing freedom of movement for EU workers.
Compromise talks are on ice before Britain votes in June on whether to quit the EU. Switzerland is not a member of the 28-member EU but has signed up to a host of bilateral agreements.
Net migration to Switzerland fell by a third to just over 15,000 in the first quarter, the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) said, as fewer foreigners arrived and more left compared to the same period in 2015.
The net migration drop was especially pronounced among EU migrants, the SEM data showed.
The Swiss government laid out a “Plan B” last month to impose unilateral curbs on immigration but stressed that an agreement with the EU was by far the preferred option.
The draft legislation would set up a commission to fix an annual upper limit based on domestic labor supply, demand for foreign workers, unemployment and economic prospects. Quotas would follow if the threshold is passed.
Just over two million foreigners were living in Switzerland at the end of March, SEM said. Almost 1.4 million of them hailed from the EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.
The drop came amid a highly-charged debate early this year on the automatic deportation of foreign law-breakers, an initiative rejected by a referendum in February.
Right-wing politicians have seized on concerns about the small country’s foreign population, which makes up almost a quarter of its total.
The anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party won the biggest share in parliamentary elections last year.
Reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi; Editing by Tony Jimenez