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Illegal teens struggle to get permits and jobs

Thomas Kern /

The children of illegal immigrants in Switzerland attend school without realising that they’re not supposed to be living here. But when they begin looking for apprenticeships, they’re suddenly confronted with their plight.

It is a situation that is difficult to overcome.

“When I was 15, I figured out that I was living in Switzerland illegally. I cried. I was really sad, because at school I had tried very hard to do my best and to make friends.”

This is how Daiene remembers the day she realised she was different from her schoolmates. Many underage “sans-papiers” (without papers) – as they are known in Switzerland – share Daiene’s fate.


Teenagers with top marks at the end of their compulsory nine years of schooling can transfer directly to an academic high school. The other 70% try to find an apprenticeship.

But because further training is only open to those with residence permits, young people lacking official papers have no legal right to sign an apprenticeship contract with an employer.

The number of people living illegally in Switzerland is estimated at between 70,000-90,000, of which 10,000 are minors.

Between 300 and 500 sans-papiers teenagers complete their compulsory schooling each year.

This means that every year, 200-400 young people are ineligible for professional training.

(Source: Federal Department for Migration)

The end of childhood

According to estimates, about 200 of the teenagers who finish their compulsory schooling each year cannot start professional training because of their legal status.

“In one fell swoop they discover that they’re living in Switzerland as young adults without permission to be here,” explained Salvatore Pittà from the Zurich association ‘Recognise Domestic Work – Regulate Sans-Papiers’.

This was exactly what happened to Luan: “When I decided to start looking for an apprenticeship, I found out I needed to have a residence permit. All at once, it dawned on me that I was living in a place where I wasn’t supposed to be.”


Residence permits

The fate of these young people has spurred discussion in recent years at the cantonal and federal levels of government. In 2010 the Swiss parliament accepted a motion by Luc Barthassat of the Christian Democratic Party. It provided a legal basis for young sans-papiers to learn a profession after completing their compulsory schooling. As a result, the cabinet decided to distribute, under strict conditions, time-limited residence permits starting in February 2013.

Within 12 months of graduation, applicants have to register themselves and all family members living in Switzerland illegally. They also have to have completed at least five years of Swiss primary school and be law-abiding. Finally, they have to find an employer willing to offer an apprenticeship contract before the local migration authority.

“Very stringent conditions,” in the view of Thierry Horner, an advisor to sans-papiers and their relatives at the Interprofessional Workers Union in Geneva.

Up to now, the new regulation has had little effect. The Federal Office for Migration told that so far, only two residence permits had been distributed: one in Bern, another in Lucerne.

Employers uninterested

One of the major difficulties these teenagers face is finding an employer willing to offer them an apprenticeship.

“The employer is free to hire them, but without knowing whether they can stay on in Switzerland, there’s little incentive for them to do so,” said Sophie Paschoud, spokeswoman at the Swiss Business Federation. Jürg Zellweg of the Swiss Employers Association, who is in charge of apprenticeships, shares this view.

Apprentices often continue working for the firm that has trained them after they earn their qualification. As training is costly and time-consuming, if the apprentice cannot stay on, employers are not able to benefit from their investment.

The Federal Office for Migration has stated that hardship residency permits can be extended after an apprenticeship is completed, but employers seem unconvinced.

“We assume that idealism plays a role among the employers who do offer apprenticeships to young sans-papiers,” said Zellweg. “The effort required to recruit them is considerably higher than for youths who are living here legally.”

In contrast to Spain or Italy, Switzerland has shown no indication of considering a collective regularisation of illegal immigrants.

Regularisation in individual residency cases has been accepted by the Swiss government since 2001. So-called hardship permits have been awarded to people of all different ages without regard to legal status – for humanitarian reasons or due to “extremely serious individual circumstances”.

In the past 12 years the federal authorities have distributed 2,000 such permits and declined about 1,000 applications that had been accepted by individual cantons.

Applicants must register themselves and their families at the cantonal authority where they live and fulfil certain conditions, such as being socially well-integrated and – except for their residential status – in compliance with Swiss law.

Clear legal guidelines for hardship cases among sans-papiers have been in effect since February 2013.

Permit or deportation risk?

Teenage sans-papiers are in a quandary. The federal commission on migration has noted that they are afraid to submit an application for hardship status because it could put their families in danger of expulsion – a possible consequence of the application being refused.

Alessandro de Filippo of the sans-papiers collective in Geneva told that the chances of having your status regularised are low, even for families that have lived in Switzerland illegally for many years. Moreover, the assessments vary considerably from canton to canton.

“In Geneva, where about 10,000 people live illegally, there have been about 1,200 regularisations. In Zurich, where about twice as many live, there have only been 15.”

Hunger to learn a profession

Cantons such as Vaud, Geneva, Basel City, Neuchâtel, and Bern have shown interest in finding a solution for young illegals who have finished their compulsory schooling in Switzerland but have been unable to start an apprenticeship. In Geneva, for example, they are allowed to begin an apprenticeship while their application is pending.

The Interprofessional Workers Union in Geneva says this gives these teens a chance to demonstrate their intention to work hard and actively integrate in local economic life, which is one of the criteria considered when granting hardship status.

Jeferson is such a case. “I started my apprenticeship at 21, after the others had long since finished. I am completely dedicated and very happy. I now have trust in myself.”


Jeferson is hopeful that he and his family will be among those who benefit from the new conditions on hardship cases set forth in 2001, which grant residence permits on a year-to-year basis.

The Federal Office for Migration said that 18 young people between the ages of 15 and 21 received such permits between August 2012 and August 2013. This official paper makes obtaining an apprenticeship possible. 

“An opportunity for well-integrated young sans-papiers to learn a profession and more easily start their working lives lies in the interests not only of the individual but also the state,” said the economic and education ministry.

(Translated by Kathleen Peters)

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