Political support is growing to improve the plight of thousands of children of illegal immigrants who have spent most of their lives in Switzerland.
An estimated 10-30,000 young “sans papiers” live in Switzerland without legal status. They can attend the state school system, but as a rule only until 16 - the end of compulsory schooling. Professional training and apprenticeships are out of reach.
“It really is a ticking social time bomb,” Green Party parliamentarian Antonio Hodgers told swissinfo.ch.
“We let these young people finish their [compulsory] schooling but give them no training prospects or access to a job even if they grow up here.”
At the end of last year Hodgers filed a motion at the House of Representatives pushing for young sans papiers to have access to professional training and for those born in Switzerland to be legally recognised.
His proposal, which has cross-party support, urges the government to apply the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to the children of illegal immigrants. Switzerland ratified the pact in 1997.
“I invite the government to read Article 2 of the convention, which states that children should not be victims of the legal status of their parents,” he said.
“Someone who decides to live illegally in a country knows that it’s going to be tough, but that’s their choice which they have to assume.
“But a child hasn’t made that choice; they just followed their parents, so they shouldn’t be punished for their parents’ decision.”
Wave of initiatives
His motion follows similar proposals by parliamentarians Christian van Singer (Green Party) in December 2008 and Luc Barthassat (Christian Democratic Party) in October 2008. All three are waiting to be discussed in the House of Representatives.
“If young people successfully complete their compulsory schooling, they should be able to follow a professional training course, an apprenticeship, or to continue their studies. And at the end of this professional training they should even be able to be naturalised,” said van Singer.
The situation is also evolving at the local level. At the end of November 2009 the Vaud government accepted an initiative that urges the federal authorities to create a legal basis to allow young sans papiers to learn a profession.
A similar move is also being considered in canton Geneva. Other cantonal and communal politicians are reportedly pushing local authorities to force Bern to act or to find a regional solution.
But the government remains opposed in principle and says the regularisation of illegal immigrants is possible in individual “very serious” cases.
“A mass amnesty authorising resident permits to all young illegal immigrants would only reward their parents’ illicit behaviour and encourage illegal stays,” it said in a statement last year.
“Soon the rules won’t mean anything anymore,” said Pierre-Yves Rappaz, president of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party at the Vaud cantonal government.
“The problem is that these young people can live for 15 or 16 years in Switzerland; we have to act faster,” he said.
Sans papiers dreams
“It’s unjust,” Andrès*, a 16-year-old Ecuadorian, who arrived in Lausanne at the age of ten, told 24 Heures newspaper.
He is currently finishing his compulsory schooling, but owing to his lack of official papers, he cannot apply for the electrician apprenticeship he dreams of.
Carlos*, an 18-year-old Bolivian, is in the same situation. He has lived in Geneva since the age of eight and completed his school education last summer with the aim of becoming a builder.
He found an apprenticeship in November, but the boss turned him down as he didn’t have the correct permit.
“It would be better to get rid of us straight away rather than let us go to school and create our lives here,” he said.
*Fatima came to Switzerland from north Africa with her parents when she was just a six-month-old baby.
For most of the past 21 years Lausanne has been her home, “but I have no rights,” she said.
“It’s unfair. I didn’t choose to be here. My parents chose to come. My life has been stuck since the age of 15.”
This was when Fatima’s parents told her the truth. Although a bright pupil, student president and a keen sportswoman, she was also the child of illegal immigrants.
“My life became very complicated,” she explained.
Supported by her headmaster, she managed to continue her secondary education, but got depressed and dropped out of high school last year.
“It’s not very easy living as a sans papiers. I couldn’t bear it anymore,” she said.
But she’s now fighting back. Her parents have appealed against a rejected naturalisation request and she plans to start night classes to finish her secondary education.
“One day I’d love to have a profession,” she said.
Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch
*all names changed
Asylum in Switzerland
The number of asylum seekers in Switzerland peaked at 48,000 applications in 1999, with the majority coming from Serbia and Kosovo.
In 2004, the government stopped welfare benefits to rejected asylum seekers and the number dropped to 14,250.
In 2006, 10,500 people sought asylum in Switzerland. Almost 20% were accepted. The Swiss voted in a referendum in the same year to tighten asylum legislation, turning down applicants that did not have a passport and doubling the length of detention for rejected asylum seekers to two years.
The government recommended the measures after releasing a report that estimated there were 300,000 illegal immigrants living in Switzerland, 9,000 of whom had jobs. Others were suspected of carrying out criminal activities.
The new laws were criticised by the United Nations. The Swiss Federal Administrative Court in 2007 overruled a clause that allowed the authorities to expel asylum seekers without identification within 48 hours.
In 2008 the number of asylum seekers in Switzerland rose to 16,606 applications, compared with 10,390 asylum applications in 2007.
An asylum seeker who has lived in Switzerland for at least five years and who can prove that he or she is integrated into society is eligible for a residence permit on humanitarian grounds. A return to their country of origin is considered a case of extreme hardship.