Skiplink Navigation

Main Features

Ideal immigrants Why Portuguese seek work in Switzerland

One of the many Portuguese immigrant workers in Switzerland.


More than 230,000 Portuguese citizens live in Switzerland. And the financial crises means the number is growing. Immigration expert Rosita Fibbi tells about the people who "don't make many demands and who know their place".

Fibbi is a professor at Lausanne University and a coordinator of the Swiss Forum for the Study of Migration at Neuchâtel University. Born in Italy, but resident in Switzerland for more than 30 years, she is well-placed to understand the complexities of immigration.

In 2010, she oversaw a study entitled "The Portuguese in Switzerland", commissioned by the Swiss authorities who believed that the Portuguese population was "little-known and badly-integrated". The Portuguese make up 12 per cent of all foreigners in Switzerland - that means they are the third biggest foreign community in the country. Why then, are they considered to be little-known?

Rosita Fibbi: Portuguese citizens are not widely known because as a rule they have stuck to the "Gastarbeiter" rules - that is workers who were invited to Switzerland to work and who then left to return to their original country. In 2008 there were 196,000 Portuguese citizens in Switzerland. Today there are 234,000, or a jump of 20 per cent. How do you explain this rise?

R.F. : There have been considerable numbers of Portuguese citizens resident in Switzerland since the 1980s. But with the agreement on freedom of movement between Switzerland and the European Union those numbers are growing.  In fact there are two groups that have really profited from this agreement, namely Portuguese and German citizens.

It is also because Portuguese immigrants do not attach much importance to obtaining Swiss nationality, unlike other nationalities who arrived at the same time, such as Turkish citizens or people from the former Yugoslavia. As citizens of the European Union, the Portuguese enjoy a comfortable legal status, so for a long time Swiss citizenship held no attraction for them. That's changing however, especially for their children born in Switzerland.

From Galicia to the Jura Families split by jobs abroad

There are few men in the streets of the little Spanish fishing port of Camariñas in the day time on weekdays. Some are out at sea, but others have ... Surely the financial crisis in Portugal is also a factor.

R.F.: Yes, certainly. But I think some of this rise is officially recorded and some goes unrecorded. Some people come to Switzerland in order to look for work and they can stay for up to three months registering with the authorities. That's where we are seeing the impact of the crisis. Do the people immigrating from Portugal have the same profile as earlier generations?

R.F.: Not always. We now have Portuguese citizens who had been in Switzerland, returned to Portugal and who are now coming back here. There are also now some very highly qualified immigrants but it’s difficult for the statistics to quantify them.

Immigration from southern Europe

Resident in Switzerland (as of 31 August 2012)

Greek: 8075

Italians: 292,040

Portuguese: 234,074

Spanish: 68,199

Immigration to Switzerland between January and August 2012

Greeks: 928

Italians: 7822

Portuguese: 12,345

Spaniards: 3962

Naturalisations (as of October 2012)

Italian: 490 (- 8.4% compared to October 2011)

German: 300 (- 17.4%)

Serb: 176 (- 58.9%)

Turkish: 145 (- 27.5%)

Portuguese: 135 (- 31.1%)

Number of non-Swiss residents in Switzerland (as of October 2012)

1,819,064 (+ 2.9% on October 2011)

Source: Federal Statistical Office

end of infobox  A study published in November by the University for Applied Sciences in Zurich concluded that Portuguese immigrants are less qualified, rarely go to German lessons, and have "less chance of integrating". Is this a fair picture?

R.F.: This was one of the main questions our research sought to answer. Learning German seems to be more problematic than learning French, and most Portuguese immigrants live in French-speaking Switzerland. I don't think the issue is learning German, it’s more to do with learning a language in an area where two languages are used [German and Swiss German], as is the case in the German-speaking areas. Will the Portuguese who've come to Switzerland return to their home country, or will they stay in Switzerland for ever?

R.F. : The crisis in Portugal makes it harder and harder to think of returning home. The dynamic of this group used to be that young children would return to Portugal if that’s what their parents decided. But nowadays, if this second generation gets post-obligatory education in Switzerland, they don't go back to Portugal. It’s not only Portugal which is in crisis. Why aren't there as many Spaniards and Italians coming to Switzerland?

R.F.: Spanish and Italian immigrants in Switzerland can't be compared to the Portuguese, who’ve been coming to Switzerland for longer. There are indeed Spaniards and Italians coming to Switzerland, but in smaller numbers. The reason for that is simple demographics. Italy and Spain have lower and lower birth-rates so it's obvious that there will be fewer immigrants from those two countries. Recent opinion polls show that the Portuguese in Switzerland have a good reputation. What's that down to?

R.F.: In the first place, the Portuguese did not come with the intention of staying. Switzerland has always been receptive to immigrants who didn't want to stay forever. And then, they work hard. I think those two aspects are important. Later, their situation improved a lot with the agreement on the freedom of movement of persons.

And then, they are people who generally do not make many demands and who know their place. What more can you ask? What are the consequences of this immigration for Switzerland?

RF: I think that with the Portuguese, Switzerland has hit the jackpot. It has found people ready to accept the least prestigious and hardest jobs, and behave totally in line with what the Swiss expect in terms of immigration. Switzerland could not function without the Portuguese.

Rosita Fibbi

Fibbi was born in Italy, and studied in Rome, Zurich and Geneva. She holds a PhD in Political Science.

She is a visiting professor at Lausanne University, where she teaches the sociology of migration. She is also a member of the coordinating body of the Swiss Forum for the Study of Migration at Neuchâtel University.

She examines the issues of the integration of migrants and their children, discrimination facing immigrants, and integration policies.

end of infobox

(Translated by Victoria Morgan),

Neuer Inhalt

Horizontal Line

WEF 2018

WEF Teaser 2018

Why Switzerland struggles with dirty gold

subscription form

Form for signing up for free newsletter.

Sign up for our free newsletters and get the top stories delivered to your inbox.

Click here to see more newsletters