Migrants in Switzerland demand a say

Integration becomes more important as Switzerland becomes more multicultural Keystone

The million and a half foreigners living in Switzerland want to play an active part in the country’s future.

This content was published on April 27, 2005 - 15:46

That is the message they will be conveying at the first national conference of the Forum for the Integration of Migrants in Olten on Saturday.

"We talk a lot about migrants, but rarely talk to them," says Claudio Micheloni, the forum’s secretary-general.

"We’ve had enough of just being objects of conversation. We want to show that we’re also capable of expressing ourselves and taking part in discussions."

This conference will not be simply an enlarged general assembly for the Forum, which since November 2000 has brought together migrant associations representing roughly 50 nationalities.

For the organisers it’s an opportunity to make themselves seen, to talk and to show that the foreign population – of whom a quarter were born in Switzerland – are not an appendage or just a labour force, but a real part of Swiss society.

"There are a million and a half of us. We’re not going anywhere and neither are our children," says Antonio Cunha, the forum’s president. "We are a significant part of this society and of its future."

Big names

The Forum sent out more than 1,500 conference invitations and the responses have been encouraging.

The foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, will attend. The justice minister, Christoph Blocher, has prior engagements but will be represented by Mario Gattiker, the deputy director of the Federal Migration Office.

Other big players from the world of politics have announced their involvement, including Doris Leuthard, president of the Christian Democratic Party, Pierre-Yves Maillard, vice-president of the Social Democratic Party, and Aliki Panayides, deputy secretary-general of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party.

Not to mention the parliamentarians, top-ranking cantonal officials, representatives from NGOs and the Church, trade union officials and many foreign diplomats.

Charter for integration

At the centre of the plenary talks and discussion groups is the charter of integration. This four-page provisional document is the result of several months’ thought and is the synthesis of forum values.

"It’s not about a litany of demands," explains Cunha. "But rather the basic principles which guide what we do and which we are prepared to discuss: citizenship based on place of birth, the right to vote and eligibility, the treatment of immigrants without identity papers, access to housing, equality in employment or training, social rights..."

Regarding religion, the charter advocates a "tolerant secularism", open to intercultural dialogue – both privately and publicly. "As astonishing as that may seem, it was very easy agreeing on that," says Cunha.

The charter asserts furthermore "the pre-eminence of a person’s rights regarding specific ethnic and religious characteristics". It defends the "total equality" of every individual, regardless of his or her origin.

Swiss compromise

Regarding cultural collaboration, the forum is keen to set an example. So migrants from Italy, Spain or Portugal share their experiences with those nationalities and ethnic groups that haven’t been in Switzerland for as long.

And in a very Swiss spirit of compromise, these new migrants are over-represented within the forum so that they can explain their particular difficulties, such as racism.

Having existed for just over four years, the forum can already take pride in undoubted successes. It is now one of those organisations to have a say whenever a bill is put forward, and for six months it has worked hand in hand with the Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education.

For 12 years the conference has made a point of providing every foreign child with schooling, whatever the legal status of their parents – even if they are illegal.

Cunha says the forum was naturally saddened by Swiss voters’ recent rejection of moves to simplify naturalisation and parliament’s tightening of the law on foreigners.

"I don’t think you can build this country’s future while denying reality," says Cunha. "There will be more and more mixing within Europe – and Switzerland can’t escape that."

Yet the forum’s president remains confident. "We’re not in any hurry. We’re there to take part in this debate which will produce a change in attitudes and combat some people’s fears and fantasies."

swissinfo, Marc-André Miserez

Key facts

Foreigners in Switzerland in 2003:
312,000 Italians
214,000 Serbs and Montenegrins
165,000 Portuguese
151,000 Germans
120,000 other Europeans
109,000 Asians
82,000 Turks and Kurds
79,000 Spaniards
72,000 French
65,000 Africans
61,000 Macedonians
60,000 Americans (North and South)
51,000 Bosnians
43,000 Croats
35,000 Austrians
3,000 Australians and others from Oceania
3,000 people who are stateless or of unknown nationality

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