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Downturn drives Europeans to Switzerland

Spanish immigrants arriving in the 1960s were crucial to the Swiss economy, but the situation is different now RDB

Tens of thousands of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and other Europeans have left their homelands this year in search of a new life. Many have come to Switzerland.

As the economic crisis bites hard across Europe, collects evidence from its readers about this new exodus and their motives for moving to the alpine nation.

Some 6,200 Italians, 9,800 Portuguese and 2,600 Spaniards arrived in Switzerland in the first eight months of 2011, according to the Federal Migration Office.

“History is repeating itself,” said Sandra on the “Emigration – stories by our readers” forum on’s Spanish page.

“In Spain I have never managed to find a job despite speaking three languages, having gone to university and being well travelled,” she explained. “When I realised that my country did not care about me (no salary, no job, no money), I decided to follow in my mother’s footsteps. She was a political exile; my exile is for economic reasons.”

Like her, large numbers of Europeans – mainly Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Irish and Italians – are choosing to move abroad because of economic pressures back home. Some have travelled to Switzerland, joining family members, friends or entrusting their fate in the hands of one of many job agencies.
“There is no doubt that many Spanish and Portuguese people are arriving. In the last few weeks alone I’ve placed a dozen in several firms here,” Antonio Vega, head of the Manpower employment agency in canton Neuchâtel, told

This has been confirmed by the Spanish consulates in Zurich and Bern which, although they have no specific figures, say there has been a rise in requests for information by Spanish citizens looking for work.
But this new generation of immigrants faces a double barrier, said Vega: lack of knowledge of one of the four national languages ​​and, curiously, being overqualified.

Those seeking work range from secretaries and construction workers to people with Masters degrees. has received numerous testimonies from Italians on its Facebook page dreaming of a better future abroad. The comments by Nicola are typical.

“I’ve certainly thought about it,” she said. “But the problem is the language. I don’t speak a word of German and only a little bit of French, so my only option is canton Ticino. The question is also knowing who to present yourself to and how, as I’ve got a an engineering degree that I would like to be properly valued.”

Growing trend

The European influx marks a new peak after a general decline since the early 1970s and a small spike in the late 1990s. Many first-generation European immigrants returned home from Switzerland just before 2007, when a deadline expired allowing them to draw accumulated capital from their state pensions, said Vega.

“Those who didn’t manage to adapt to the Spanish labour market or who invested their money badly are once again knocking at Switzerland’s door,” said the Manpower official.

The more fortunate ones are staying with friends or family members as they look for work, but it is not unusual to see people sleeping in cars, he said.

“Many people have set out on an adventure. And if there is one country you just can’t go seeking adventure, it’s Switzerland. They come with just €1,000 (SFr1224) in their pockets without thinking that this kind of money will barely last one week,” he added.

Well qualified

The current generation are often arriving with two different professions and a Masters degree under their belts, but their situation in Switzerland is worse than that of their parents as the labour market doesn’t need them, said Daniel Ordás, a Basel-based lawyer who is president of the Association of Spanish Entrepreneurs and Self-Employed Businessmen in Switzerland.

No matter how many qualifications people have, the Swiss are not welcoming them with open arms, according to Vega.

“The immigrants of the 1960s were really necessary for the Swiss economy. But this is not the case today. In fact, the open borders are starting to worry the Swiss more and more,” he commented.

Ordás agreed: “I don’t want to speculate, but Switzerland has thought about reviewing its bilateral agreements with the European Union on several occasions. Protectionism is a reality in Switzerland.”

No Eldorado

More alarmist views can be found on the internet.

“Have you any idea how foreign workers are treated in Switzerland, especially Italians? Make sure your dream does not turn into a nightmare,” wrote Clare from Milan on the Facebook page.

Aline Merluzzo from the employment agency Adecco said there was definitely no point in raising false hopes.

“Today Switzerland is no longer the El Dorado of the 1960s and the Swiss themselves are starting to feel the pinch as the crisis spreads across Europe,” she added.

The number of foreigners living in Switzerland has risen by nearly three per cent over the past year, statistics from the Federal Migration Office reveal.

At the end of August, 1,751,301 foreigners were living in Switzerland, accounting for 22.3 per cent of permanent residents in the country.

Citizens of the European Union and Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland increased by 43,805 to 1,129,638 people in the year from the end of August 2010 to the end of August 2011.
The rise in foreign permanent residents is due to increases in nationals from Kosovo (+17,864), Germany (+14,395), Portugal (+9,816), France (+4,388) and Britain (+2,365), the Migration Office said in a statement.
Italians are the largest foreign national group with 289,555 people, followed by Germans with 272,906 people, Portuguese with 220,446 people, Serbs with 105,737 people and French with 97,288 citizens resident in Switzerland.  

(Translated from Spanish by Simon Bradley)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR