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Swiss gypsies demand end to discrimination

The government admits there are not enough transit zones for nomadic travellers like this one in canton Aargau

(Keystone)

Travellers in Switzerland say they are still suffering from widespread discrimination despite legal rulings that the authorities put an end to it.

Backed by the Federal Commission against Racism, they are demanding that the government follows through on promises to create new campsites and parking areas.

The commission and the Foundation for Assuring the Future of Swiss Travellers, a body within the interior ministry that helps to improve the lives of the travelling community, have called on the government to implement an action plan to end discrimination faced by up to 5,000 travellers of the 30,000 gypsy community.

The main concern is the lack of camping facilities and transit areas for the travellers, who are regularly obliged to occupy land illegally.

"What people often forget is that they are Swiss citizens," said Georg Kreis, president of the commission.

The lack of campsites is a problem that has been festering for years because of opposition from the cantons and local authorities.

"In Switzerland, we are allowed to travel, but not to stop," May Bittel, a figurehead of the Swiss gypsy community and a member of the commission, said on Thursday in Bern.

The Federal Court ruled in 2003 that the authorities were obliged to put an end to discrimination against the travelling community and guarantee its rights.

Traditions

At the time judges ruled that the cantons must set up a sufficient number of campsites and transit areas so that nomads could live according to their traditions.

But proposals to set up campsites often fail at the ballot box, and a perceived lack of flexibility on the part of the authorities where to set them up does nothing to make the population more amenable to the idea.

The government released a report on October 18 admitting there was a shortfall of 29 campsites and 38 transit areas for gypsies.

Kreis said that the authorities recognised there was a problem, but weren't prepared to do enough to solve it. He added that the government refused to put pressure on the cantons to find solutions.

Werner Niederer, president of the foundation, said that the government needed to sit down with the cantons and draw up an action plan to end discrimination against the travelling community.

This included setting up campsites and transit zones on land owned by the army, two at least in each canton. Nomads should also be allowed to camp on public land for a few days outside officially designated areas.

The commission, which admits that implementing such demands will cost money, is asking for the state to give financial backing for the creation of these campsites.

swissinfo with agencies

Federal Commission against Racism

The Federal Commission against Racism was created in 1995. It was set up by the government to fight racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and ...

In brief

Besides language and religious minorities in Switzerland, there is also a gypsy minority known as the Jenisch with around 30,000 members, with 5,000 or so still living a nomadic or semi-nomadic existence.

Supporters of the community have demanded that the government ratify the International Labour Organization's Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.

This would protect the use of the Jenisch language, spoken by most of the community in Switzerland and guarantee access to schools.

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A dark chapter

Between 1926 and 1973, around 600 children from the Swiss gypsy community were taken from their parents and placed in sedentary families to live a "normal" Swiss life. Some ended up in orphanages and mental asylums.

The Pro Juventute youth foundation was behind this operation with the backing of the authorities.

A scandal broke out after these practices were revealed, forcing the government to present an official apology in 1986 for having made a financial contribution to the operation.

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