The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the challenges faced by the estimated 100,000 irregular migrants, also called ‘sans papiers’, in the small Alpine nation known for its high cost of living.
“I have friends and we help each other, but this time we've all been affected by the crisis. A friend of mine, who is married to a Swiss man, is lending me money to survive. The coronavirus has caused the spread of poverty here,” says Mariana*, a 34-year-old woman from the Dominican Republic who works as a house cleaner.
“Two families still pay me for the hours I normally work for them every week, even if I don't go to their homes. They tell me that I can compensate them later by doing an extra hour of cleaning, but other families can't do this as they are foreigners who have lost their jobs or they don't need me because they are at home.”
Today, Mariana lives with friends in a village near the town of Murten in canton Fribourg in north-west Switzerland. She remains hopeful that as shops and businesses slowly start up, she will find new ways to survive.
“I'm thinking of asking for farming work, even though I don't know anyone I trust there. A young refugee told me that some farmers are accepting people without permits to grow asparagus. He works with them now and also receives money from social assistance. That seems unfair to me, but that's all there is. I have not been a burden for the state. I have supported myself, but today I cannot clean houses because of the pandemic.”
Switzerland is no different to many other countries – irregular migrants do the many jobs that locals do not want to do. They build houses, clean, cook, take care of children or even work as prostitutes. In good times, they can earn enough to eat, pay their rent and send home money to their relatives in their countries of origin.
In difficult times, they are the hardest hit, lacking the same safety net as other workers in the country.
Entire family out of work
“Is there any financial support to help people pay their rent?” asks Hector*, an irregular migrant from Nicaragua, who lives with his wife and two children in Switzerland.
He and his wife have been unemployed since early March. They must still pay CHF1,000 ($1,036) per month for rent and desperately need help.
During the coronavirus crisis, various organisations and support centres in Zurich, Lucerne, Basel, Bern, Geneva and Lausanne have been able to help with basic expenses by providing things like food vouchers. But requests for advice and financial support have continued to flood in.
“In Zurich, over 400 people have called us for financial aid to cover essential expenses during confinement,” explained Bea Schwager, head of the Zurich centre SPAZexternal link.
As soon as Swiss businesses were forced to close during the lockdown, SPAZ made a public appeal for donations.
“We have received about CHF100,000 but much of that money has already been spent,” said Schwager. “We suspended the distribution of financial support because we have to re-evaluate how to continue this work.”
How long will this crisis go on?
Myriam Schwab of the Protestant Social Centre (CSP) in canton Vaud says the biggest fear is not knowing how long the current situation will last.
“Although providing financial support is not our main activity, which is counselling, we are currently looking to obtain funds to help people who do not have access to public assistance in the current emergency situation,” she said.
People are living from day to day and aside from basic needs like food, paying rent is the main unresolved problem, explained Byron Allauca, president of the Vaud Collective in Support of Sans Papiers (CVSSP).
“Many people have not been able to cover April's rent. [The charity] Caritas helps them with vouchers to buy cheaper food in shops and the Protestant church movement provides them with food rations. In Lausanne, for example, before the crisis the Protestant church gave out 80 food rations. Today it distributes 350,” he said.
In mid-April, the CSP and CVSSP, together with other Vaud organisations, wroteexternal link to the federal, cantonal and municipal authorities appealing for financial aid and other support for the most vulnerable, including undocumented migrants. However, they have not yet received a reply.
Meanwhile, Socialist Democrat parliamentarian Ada Marra, who is co-president of the national platform of the sans-papiers, on Tuesday filed an official request with the Federal Council calling for the setting up of a fund to be distributed to associations that help irregular migrants.
Unfortunately, the situation in Switzerland is unlikely to improve with the end of confinement, warned Schwab.
“It will be difficult for those without papers to find work in Switzerland in the future. Access to employment is crucial for their survival, but we have entered a very bleak period. And you only have to look at the history of immigration in Switzerland to know that in a crisis it is always the most vulnerable foreign workers who suffer the most. They are ones who have to leave the country," she declared.
*names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Translated from Spanish by Simon Bradley