It is estimated that Switzerland is home to 100,000 to 200,000 sans-papiers, all of whom are victims of Switzerland's harsh new asylum policy introduced in January 2008. These sans-papiers, many of whom lost their jobs and homes because of the change in immigration laws, fall into 3 main groups: those who entered the country on work permits, didn't get them renewed but decided to stay; those who came to Switzerland looking for clandestine employment make up the second category; & a third steadily growing group containing migrants whose asylum request was rejected or not even looked into, and refugees who've lost their temporary admission when they were asked to leave because their countries of origin where considered "safe to return".
Like most European countries, life for sans-papiers in Switzerland is extremely precarious, no longer able to receive any form of social welfare and subject to the constant threat of being arrested and deported. The recent Swiss asylum legislation left a tiny door open for these marginalised migrants, hardship grants for those who have lived in Switzerland for at least five years and have "integrated very well". If they are then able to register with the Department of Migration they receive the equivalent of 60-70 Swiss francs ($60-70) per week in vouchers for the Swiss supermarket chain Migros. As in Britain, migrants support organisations, such as the Refugees Welcome Café in Zurich, have set up voucher exchange schemes where state aid can be exchanged for cash and used for transport and phone call costs.
For many years Switzerland had probably Europe's toughest naturalisation laws, stipulating a minimum 12 years residence before one could even apply, and being born in Switzerland also brings no automatic right to citizenship. On top of that an individual's citizenship application is handled by their town or village and is voted upon by the local community. One of the current major pitfalls the migrants come across is the applicant's ability to speak German. And of course it is impossible to pay for language lessons with supermarket vouchers. So some migrants and their supporters have open up a free language school in a squatted church in Zurich, and they have been giving German lessons to three different ability streams (A1, A2 & B1) for the past 10 months.
Irene Holliger, one of the teachers, says she's amazed by the students' motivation to learn and the joy in their eyes. She regards her engagement as an act of solidarity: "I'm retired. I have free time and want to support the refugees. All of us work as volunteers. Many students live in emergency centres far away from the school. We've raised some money with fundraising meals and a party. This allows us to cover travel expenses for many of the students, but it's not sufficient." Bah Saidou, another of the teachers at the school, came to Switzerland from Guinea in September 2002. He was swiftly refused leave to remain and told to leave. He chose to stay and ended up homeless and in an emergency centre following the changes in the law in 2008. As well as teaching German, he is active in the sans-papiers' campaign: "This is my way to struggle. We have realised that we have to stick together. The school is part of our struggle."
Many of the migrants are bemused that the Swiss politicians keep demanding foreigners integrate into Swiss society, but don't give them an opportunity to do so. "Integration consists of different aspects such as access to education, the labour market and decent housing. However, we have no chance to visit a school, are forbidden to work, and live in fenced-off emergency-centres often far away from towns and villages," says Berhanu Tesfaye, one of the students at the school. Born in Ethiopia, he fled to Switzerland in 2000 and was issued a NEE twice. Then he filed a request under the hardship provision, but failed: "My application was rejected because my German language skills weren't good enough. Then I came to the school. Three months later I successfully passed an exam in A2, and four months later in B1. The certificate allows me to hand in an application again."
Anti-Islamic sentiment is also rife in the country, especially since the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) more than doubled its share of the vote in the 2007 federal elections (we are sure you remember the infamous 'black sheep' election poster). Earlier this year the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) published a report on the progress made Switzerland in implementing recommendations for action in curbing racism made by the Council of Europe in 2004.
Needless to say the SVP were slatted for their "racist and xenophobic tone" and racist generalisations: "Repeated attacks by Swiss People's Party members against foreigners' fundamental rights and against the prohibition of racism and xenophobia have created a deep sense of unease in Swiss society generally and especially in minority communities." The report also warned about the Swiss media reinforcing racist stereotypes and the rise of neo-Nazi and far-right groups in the country.
Also criticised was the general level of discourse about asylum: "Public opinion is so poisoned by this dialogue that asylum and refugees are a problem that it is very difficult to get away from this. You need to start again with a totally new communication. If you want to stop asylum seekers being seen as a problem then you need to communicate in a totally different way, you need to show positive examples of integration."