A new help centre has opened its doors in Zurich to the estimated tens of thousands of illegal immigrants residing in the canton.
The Sans-Papiers Anlaufstelle Zurich (Spaz), which started operating on Tuesday, will give legal advice, protection from exploitation and medical aid to individuals seeking assistance.
The facility was set up by the pressure group Colectivo Sin-Papeles and trade unions along the lines of a similar centre that has been operating in Basel since October 2002.
It is difficult to put an exact figure on the number of illegal immigrants in Switzerland as they tend to hide from the authorities, but according to Spaz there are up to an estimated 30,000 in the canton alone. They are mostly failed asylum seekers or workers whose visas have expired.
"Immigrants in Switzerland who do not have the proper papers are forced to go underground and are vulnerable to exploitation from unscrupulous employers," said Spaz spokeswoman Ursula Kubicek.
"Many live like slaves in their apartments and are too afraid to go to hospitals or doctors if they are ill because they will have to reveal their identities which could lead to them being deported," she added.
Among the services on offer at Spaz are confidential legal advice, assistance with applying for residency and assessing medical conditions.
The organisation is also establishing a network of lawyers, doctors and politicians to provide further help.
The centre will be funded by charitable donations and will be housed in union offices in the city's Volkshaus.
The unions involved in setting up the service say that illegal immigrants have a positive impact on Switzerland.
"They do work that no one else will do and without them our economy and society could not function," said Salvatore Di Concilio, migration secretary of the country’s largest trade union Unia.
"In some industries, they are actually the supporting pillar, for example in the cleaning, waiting, hotel and building industries," he added.
Karin Ottiger, regional secretary of the public service union VPOD, vowed to fight for the right to health insurance and social security benefits for workers without the proper authorisation, as well as the right for their children to be accepted into Swiss schools.
She also issued a warning to employers who exploited such immigrants.
"Employers have nothing to lose. Workers without papers live in constant fear of discovery so can’t fight against bad salaries and working conditions," she said.
"If they do report an employer then they become the guilty party. The fight is to win dignity back for these people."
The opening of Spaz comes at a time heated debates are taking place in parliament about tightening up the current asylum law.
It also follows just months after the Swiss public voted to ratify the Schengen and Dublin accords with the European Union, which will bring closer cooperation in the justice and asylum fields.
Spaz campaigners are fighting for a change in the law to give illegal immigrants more rights.
"Things can’t continue the way they are, there must be a better solution to the problem," said Kubicek.
"At the moment immigrants without papers are living outside the law and outside society. We are trying to influence politicians to change the law so that we can empower these people and bring them inside," she underlined.
swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Zurich
There are an estimated 30,000 illegal workers in canton Zurich, according to Spaz.
A sans-papiers centre opened in Basel in October 2002.
The recent yes vote on the Schengen/Dublin accords will give Switzerland access to a European database on illegal workers.