Riot police were called out in Zurich as people protested against the passing of the initiative [Reuters]

Switzerland has endorsed a far-right push to automatically expel foreign residents convicted of certain crimes, to the dismay of critics who described it as a "dark day for human rights".

The approval of the initiative in a referendum was an expression of insecurity, Simonetta Sommaruga, the country's justice minister said, stressing the government would examine how to implement the new rule without violating its international obligations.

In the vote, 52.9 per cent were in favour of automatic expulsions and 47.1 per cent were against, with the country's German-speaking majority largely backing the proposal.

Only six of the country's 26 cantons rejected the initiative.

The vote came exactly a year after Switzerland shocked the world by agreeing to ban the construction of new minarets, which was another proposal backed by the far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP).

The decision on Sunday "is a first step on the way towards greater security," said the SVP in a statement.

As with their campaign against minarets, the far-right party launched an aggressive push for the expulsion of foreign criminals, saying those guilty of certain crimes should be stripped of their right to remain in the country.

Anti-immigration mood

Its signature poster illustrates a white sheep kicking a black sheep out of the Swiss flag.

Another poster depicts a gangster-like man with the slogan "Ivan S, rapist, and soon a Swiss?".

Sommaruga noted that the "majority of the voters have sent a clear signal that they consider foreign criminality to be a serious problem."

It is "an expression of insecurity. I take this very seriously," she told journalists.

A working group will be set up to examine how the new rule could be implemented in a way that complies with the Swiss constitution and international conventions, she said.

"It is in the interest of all - Swiss, foreigners and the Swiss economy - that we have more clarity on this soon," she said.

According to the Federal Office of Migration, about 350 to 400 people are expelled every year but this figure would rise to 1,500 with the adoption of the new initiative.

Critics object that it smacks of discrimination and runs in the same xenophobic vein as the banning of minarets.

Amnesty International said the approval of the plan marked a "dark day for human rights in Switzerland".

Source: Agencies