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Church occupiers staying put

The illegal immigrants have taken their demands for residency all the way to Bern Keystone

A group of 80 foreigners, who have been occupying a church in a bid to secure residency rights, have decided to continue their protest, despite the threat of eviction. The group took possession of the church 11 weeks ago, and had been ordered to leave by Monday.

The group has decided to occupy the church itself, rather than the parish facilities they had been using until now. The foreigners anticipated any possible moves by the authorities to evict them by moving into the church on Sunday.

The prefect’s office in Fribourg had given the group until Monday to leave the premises of the Saint-Paul church. With the group now refusing to budge, the authorities will have to decide whether to evict the foreigners.

The parish priest has asked the prefect not to send in the police. The official declared on Monday he will wait for the parish council and the local political authorities to make up their mind.

The local bishop, Monsignor Bernard Genoud, has also announced he will serve as a negotiator between the group and the parish council.

When the Fribourg occupation finally does come to an end, it is unlikely to be the end of the matter. A similar church occupation is taking place in Lausanne, and a building owned by a left-wing association has also been taken over by a group of foreigners in La Chaux-de-Fonds.

Significant support

Whatever the outcome of the Fribourg occupation, the protesters appear to have won significant public and political support for their campaign.

A survey conducted in French-speaking Switzerland two weeks suggested that 60 per cent of people would favour an across-the-board regularisation of the status of all clandestine workers, one of the key demands of those occupying the Saint-Paul church.

The call has the backing of Christiane Brunner, the leader of the Social Democrats, one of the four parties represented in the federal government. Three weeks ago, she said she would favour a general amnesty, albeit for those who had a job and who had been in Switzerland for more than a year.

Brunner’s party has pledged to raise the issue of those living and working illegally in Switzerland during the imminent autumn session of parliament.

Clearing up people’s status

However, the stance of the government and employers’ associations is that a collective amnesty is out of the question, and that the problem must be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

“There are people who have been living here without valid documentation for ten years. They have families and have become well integrated. We absolutely have to clear up their status,” says Peter Gysling, spokesman for the Federal Office for Foreigners.

“But each case has to be looked at individually. There will never be a parliamentary majority in favour of a collective amnesty,” he told swissinfo. “It’s up to the cantons to identify the special cases, and then the federal government will be willing to grant them residency permits.”

Gysling confirmed that the government was looking into increasing the penalties imposed on employers who take on clandestine workers, often in order to avoid paying decent wages.

“There are many employers who do wrong, but it’s the weakest – those without documents – who pay,” he said.

Vital part of the workforce

There are estimated to be as many as 300,000 illegal workers in Switzerland, and they have become a vital cog in the Swiss economy, taking low-paid jobs in agriculture, the construction sector and restaurants that would otherwise be impossible to fill.

“The Fribourg 80 are merely the tip of the iceberg,” says Jean Kunz, head of the movement backing the Fribourg clandestines. It believes these illegal workers are the victims of an economy that demands a flexible and temporary workforce.

“This is a result of Swiss immigration policies, which discriminate between those who are highly qualified and those who are unqualified. The reason there are so many illegal workers is because immigration policies are too strict,” Gaëtan Zurkinden told swissinfo.

The Fribourg collective last week handed a letter to the Economics Ministry to demand that it do something to regulate their status, and to highlight what they see as the hypocrisy of the situation in Switzerland, which tolerates a huge clandestine workforce, but does nothing to put it on a legal footing.

Officials from the Economics Ministry declined to be interviewed by swissinfo, saying the question of illegal workers was a matter for the Federal Office for Refugees.

Fear of expulsion

Fourteen nationalities are represented in the Fribourg collective, which includes people who were given temporary asylum in Switzerland or who were granted seasonal work permits, but whose documentation has expired. Most have lived here for many years.

“Why should they live in illegality? These people live in constant fear of being thrown out of Switzerland,” Zurkinden says.

“I feel at home here,” says Selva Krasniqi, an ethnic Albanian from Bosnia, who came to Switzerland in 1995, and who has been asked to leave the country.

“I’ve been told I can appeal against the decision, but only from the country I’ve been expelled to. I have friends here. I’ve learnt the language. Why can’t I stay?” he told swissinfo.

As well as Fribourg, there is another occupation at Bellevaux, near Lausanne, involving a group of nine ethnic Albanians and their supporters. This group, which has the slogan “In Four Years, You Take Root”, is concerned specifically with regulating the status of Kosovars.

The Bellevaux occupation lost a great deal of support when they decided to turn away two Kurdish families. The Fribourg group, by adopting a more general approach, has succeeded in winning greater public sympathy and sparking a political debate.

The movement spread to another canton last Friday. Twenty-five people from Africa, Kosovo and Kurdistan occupied the “Maison du Peuple” in La Chaux-de-Fonds.

The group from canton Neuchâtel has announced it is prepared to welcome the members of the Fribourg collective.

by Roy Probert

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR