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From Tunis to Geneva, with the chance to learn a trade

A migration agreement in place since last year lets young Tunisians come to Switzerland to build their careers. But participation is low so far AFP

A former elite swimmer from Tunisia is getting career training at a Geneva pool, learning to become a swim coach as part of a unique migration agreement. But so far, it hasn't been easy for his fellow citizens to benefit from the deal.

Seifeddine Ben Taleb, the Geneva intern, lights up when he talks about swimming – teaching it, studying it, and maybe someday training the next Olympic champion from his country. He’s been in Switzerland since 2010 completing a Master’s degree in physical education. But even though he dreams of staying in Switzerland long-term, he knows the legal limitations. So he’s content with being able to stay on as an intern and get an extra leg up in the Tunisian job market.

“[I heard] that there was a possibility to stay in Switzerland and benefit from the system in order to gain some experience and return to Tunisia to get a good job,” Ben Taleb tells “[Employers] will respect my experience more because I have a foreign diploma.”

The internship programme, in place since August 2014, was offered as part of a larger migration partnership wherein Tunisia agreed to faster processing and repatriation of its asylum seekers in Switzerland, among other points. In return, the Swiss offered 150 internship places designed to address education and unemployment problems in Tunisia by giving the interns entry-level international experience that they can take back home with them. Applicants must have completed a university degree or an apprenticeship to be eligible.

But there’s just one issue with the scheme: very few Swiss employers are taking on Tunisian interns.

Limited leverage

The State Secretariat for Migration (SSM) is responsible for overseeing the terms of the migration partnership. “Normally the trainees would get their jobs themselves and our office would allow for entry and the stay in Switzerland,” the SSM’s Gregoire Crettaz explained. “The problem is finding available jobs, and we’re having trouble identifying possibilities for these young Tunisians to work here in Switzerland.”

“The leverage we have over the private sector is, of course, limited,” Crettaz admits. “Employers have to create available positions out of their own will and we have no influence over that.”

Ben Taleb believes he was able to benefit from the internship programme because he was already living in Switzerland, entrenched in his field and able to make contacts on the ground. Plus, although the internship he found is ideal for him, he thinks most of the other applicants were foreigners because the irregular hours might not be as attractive to Swiss interns with other options.

And he is well aware that employers are going out on a limb when they take on interns from Tunisia instead of from Switzerland or a neighbouring country, especially because of the time limits placed on those from Tunisia.

“I think it’s difficult for Swiss employers to trust a foreigner, and then a year and a half is not very long [to have an intern],” he points out. “They know they will educate you and then let you go [because you’re not eligible for employment after that].”

Banking on success

Crettaz knows the stakes are high for the project to succeed. The Tunisian internship agreement is the first of its kind with a country in the Arab world as well as an important element of the migration partnership with Tunisia for the SSM. For that reason, he says his office has gone beyond the normal mandate for such agreements, appealing to possible employers and working with members of the Tunisian diaspora in Switzerland to try to increase the number of interns being taken on.

“For non-European Union countries, we have almost no opportunities to let people enter Switzerland except those who are very qualified,” Crettaz says. “We have few possibilities to help countries like Tunisia and let them have people enter for training or work. This [programme] is the only possibility we have.”

“Normally we wouldn’t intervene, but we want to make it a success.”

Ben Taleb explains that most young people from his country with the means to do so aim to go abroad, at least for a short while, to study and gain experience. The most popular destinations tend to be France, Canada and Switzerland – because of the French language they have in common – as well as Gulf States such as Oman, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates.

The asylum debate

According to Crettaz, the demand for economic aid for countries like Tunisia increased after the Arab Spring protests of 2011, which led to the end of Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s more than 20-year rule. The country’s political turmoil also led to increased numbers of asylum seekers fleeing to Europe, including Switzerland.

In response, Switzerland sought to conclude a migration accord with Tunisia, of which the internship programme is a part (see infobox). At the time, NGOs such as the development organisation Alliance Sud criticised the deal and others like it for too strongly linking asylum issues with development aid. Some Tunisian politicians also felt, at the time, that they didn’t get enough out of the deal.

Today, the number of asylum requests placed by Tunisians in Switzerland has markedly declined. And while 841 Tunisian asylum seekers were repatriated in 2013 – some forcibly, most voluntarily – that number dropped to 216 in 2014, according to the SSM.

External Content

However, economic troubles continue to plague Tunisia. Like many other countries in the region, its population is very young, with 39% of its about 11 million people under the age of 24. Based on a 2015 projection by the International Labour Organization, 28.5% of Tunisian 14-to-28-year-olds are currently unemployed. 

Crettaz says other countries across the Arab world and Africa facing similar challenges are keeping an eye on the Swiss-Tunisian migration partnership “because they know we have this arrangement with Tunisia and come with the same request” to have access to Switzerland for their workers.

“First, we want to have the experience with Tunisia because we want to make sure it’s a success before making other agreements,” he explains.

The Swiss-Tunisian migration agreement

Under this accord concluded in 2012 and fully in force since August 2014, Switzerland and Tunisia agreed to work together to combat irregular migration, promote socioeconomic development and more quickly repatriate Tunisians whose requests for asylum in Switzerland were not successful.

As part of that agreement, Switzerland agreed to take 150 Tunisian interns per year between the ages of 18 and 35 who can work in Swiss companies and businesses for a maximum of 18 months. The internships must be paid at the legal Swiss rate and must be within the branch of study that the applicant has completed.

As of this article’s publication date, four interns are employed under the programme, with a fifth pending.

To date, Switzerland has concluded similar migration partnerships with Nigeria, Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, although those do not include the same internship programme.

Sources of internships

The migration office, the Swiss Embassy in Tunisia and a Tunisian diaspora organisation called CTRSExternal link have reached out to employers and associations in Switzerland in the food service and agriculture industries, among others, to try to make them aware of the possibility of employing Tunisian interns. However, upon inquiry, Monika Schatzmann of Agrimpuls, which places interns from Switzerland and abroad on farms, said the organisation is not currently promoting or working with interns from Tunisia. The majority of its foreign interns come from eastern European countries like Ukraine, Romania and Hungary.

Other possible sources of employment, such as the retail sector, tend to mostly take interns that have gone through the Swiss apprenticeship system. The hotel sector does employ some interns from so-called “third countries” outside the European Union, with spokesperson Corinne Seiler of Hotelleriesuisse telling that it had issued six to eight work permits for such foreign interns last year. However, that’s out of a total of 1,926 hotel school graduates who took their final exams and will go on to hotel internships.

Switzerland’s many multinational corporations are also a possible source of internship positions for Tunisians, but spots aren’t easy to get: according to Patrick Barth, a spokesperson for the Basel-based drug company Novartis, they usually have about 600 applications for the 20 positions available in one of their most competitive internship programmes.

And of all the interns employed at Novartis, three-quarters come from France, Germany or Switzerland.

However, according to Crettaz, one Tunisian intern did recently manage to get a position at Novartis as one of the four currently benefiting from the migration agreement nationwide.

Building networks

Amid such sparse possibilities, Crettaz believes the best hope for the Tunisian internship agreement lies in connecting with Tunisians running businesses in Switzerland who are looking to employ some of their fellow countrymen, as well as with Swiss companies that do business in Tunisia. He says initiatives are or will soon be underway with the Tunisian-Swiss Chamber of Commerce, the development organisation Swisscontact and the Tunisian authorities to identify possible partners.

For his part, Ben Taleb believes the programme could become more successful if more Tunisian students already in Switzerland – like him – were told about it through their universities. Plus, he thinks the length of time the interns are allowed to stay should be extended so employers are more likely to be willing to put the effort in to train them.

“To find something from Tunisia for 18 months – even most young people wouldn’t want those terms, to turn their lives upside down for that short of a time,” he says. “And even after that it’s often not easy to find a job in Tunisia.”

Ben Taleb is glad he took advantage of the chance to stay in Switzerland an extra 18 months and is optimistic he’ll find a job quickly upon returning to Tunisia, even though he will miss “everything” about the country that he’s called home for the past five years.

“We know the law in Switzerland,” he says matter-of-factly. “We don’t have the right to work after our studies. So we can benefit from the internship but after a year and a half, I will definitely return to Tunis.”

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR