New calls to legalise thousands of illegal workers

The sans-papiers group has been campaigning around the country for an amnesty Keystone

The Swiss government is facing renewed calls to legalise the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants currently living and working in the country.

This content was published on October 30, 2002 - 19:24

A leading organisation that supports illegal workers says that a blanket amnesty is the only way to resolve the controversial issue.

The sans-papiers collective has also dismissed a pledge by the justice ministry to examine requests on a case-to-case basis as a ploy.

The organisation claims that under the current system, only about 550 illegal immigrants, also known as sans papiers, have been granted residency status since the end of last year.

In Switzerland there are an estimated 300,000 illegal workers and they have become a vital cog in the Swiss economy, often taking low-paid jobs in agriculture, the construction sector or restaurants - jobs that the Swiss are reluctant fill themselves.

Last year, groups of illegal immigrants and their supporters occupied churches in Lausanne and Fribourg in protest at being denied residency rights.

No amnesty

But the Swiss government has ruled out any kind of blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants, saying that each case had to be reviewed separately.

Ten months after these measures were introduced, Mark Haldimann, a spokesman for the sans-papiers collective, says not enough progress has been made.

"We know that we have in Switzerland between 70,000 and 180,000 sans papiers who are working and if we take their families into account we have between 200,000 and 300,000 people," Haldimann told swissinfo.

"So when the government can only take 550 cases in one year this can't be a solution by any means."

Cantons to blame

According to Haldimann, the second part of the problem lies with the cantons, none of whom want to be known as an "illegal workers mecca".

Each canton takes cases and sends them to Bern for approval but their approach to clandestine immigrants differs greatly.

"We have the problem that cantons are working on a very different basis and that certain cantons don't accept any cases. So even when someone has lived in such a canton for a while he or she can't get in at all," explains Haldimann.

Haldimann says the government's present stance on illegal workers is a show, without substance.

Law abiding

But Mario Tuor, of the Swiss justice ministry, says although he believes the collective is doing much good work to highlight the problem, people must seek proper residency and work permits.

"It is difficult for each individual to live in the constant fear of being deported, but we maintain our opinion that whoever stays must abide by the law," he said.

The sans-papiers collective says the solution is a general amnesty for all and not a case by case approach, which it claims is inefficient and discriminatory.

No change

Tuor disagrees, arguing that the present system does not need to be changed.

"We want a system that respects the present laws, also because the experience of our neighbouring countries with amnesties shows that they have not resolved the problem. Just look at Italy," he told swissinfo.

But Haldimann is not discouraged. He cites public sympathy for last year's protests, which according to one poll in French-speaking Switzerland, generated 60 per cent support for a general amnesty.

"We have been gaining public sympathy and when the pressure on the government and politicians is high enough they will have to discuss regularisation."

swissinfo, Isobel Johnson

Key facts

The UN estimates 175 million migrants are on the move around the world.
56 million in Europe.
50 million in Asia.
41 million in North America.
60% of global migration is towards industrialised countries.
40% of all countries have special migration laws.

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