The question of what to do with hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants is dividing Swiss opinion. Over the past few weeks, groups of immigrants have demonstrated, and occupied churches in many Swiss cities to draw attention to their situation. They are seeking residency rights after having lived in Switzerland for many years.
The Swiss authorities estimate that as many as 300,000 illegal immigrants may live in Switzerland, many of them working without permits.
Left wing supporters of the occupations have called for a general amnesty for illegal immigrants, arguing that many have been in Switzerland for years, and are well integrated.
But groups on the right, such as the Swiss People's Party, say anyone working illegally in Switzerland should be deported.
Authorities "closed their eyes"
At the Swiss Federal Aliens Office, spokesman Peter Gysling says the issue has become urgent.
"I think for many years the authorities here closed their eyes to the problem," Gysling told swissinfo, "they tolerated illegal workers, and now we have a lot of people living here underground, so to speak, and working illegally."
Gysling however, does not believe a general amnesty would be a workable solution.
"Firstly an amnesty would have no chance politically," said Gysling, "we have an atmosphere now in which many Swiss think there are too many foreigners in the country.
"And secondly" he continued, "a general amnesty would not really be fair, we can't treat every illegal immigrant the same way. But I think an amnesty for what we call hardship cases would be justified."
Compassion and cool heads
Rosemarie Simmen of the Federal Commission on Foreigners agrees that some illegal immigrants should be eligible for work and residency permits.
"These occupations of churches are a desperate plea from people in very difficult situations," said Simmen, "But an amnesty is not the best solution," she added, "we have to keep a cool head even if we are compassionate."
Simmen believes many illegal immigrants would fall into the category of hardship cases, and she has proposed setting up a series of mediation centres across the country to assess their situation.
Nezir Neziri is one who might be classed as a hardship case. He came to Switzerland from Macedonia as a seasonal worker and worked for many years legally, until his work permit was withdrawn; the Swiss authorities argued that it had been issued in error in the first place.
He then worked illegally for a short time in one of Switzerland's best-known hotels, on a low salary, with no pension or sickness benefits. Now he has lost that job too, and is one of 40 illegal immigrants occupying an art gallery in Fribourg.
"Switzerland has disappointed me," said Neziri, "I came here with high hopes that I could start a new life and support my family, I've always worked, never been in trouble, I speak German, I'm well integrated, but now they want me to leave. I'm back where I was 15 years ago when I first came here."
The fact that Nezire did work illegally for a time is something that the Swiss government intends to crack down on.
"There are some unscrupulous Swiss companies who use these illegal workers like slaves," said Peter Gysling, "and so the government is preparing a new law making the employment of illegal workers a crime, and not just an offence punishable by a fine."
Halil Sahiti, another immigrant taking part in the occupation, is equally bitter. Sahiti came to Switzerland from Kosovo as an asylum seeker in 1990, and was able to work on a limited permit until his request for asylum was rejected, a process which took many years.
"Now I am married and I have a baby son.," said Sahiti, "I know Switzerland better than I know my own country, the best years of my life have been spent here."
Sahiti would like to apply for residency rights as a hardship case, but has been told he is not eligible because he has not been in Switzerland long enough. This is because he re-applied for asylum on the birth of his son last June, and under Swiss law his length of stay in the country now dates from then, and not from 1990 when he first arrived.
Hedi Mdaini from Tunisia also appears to be a victim of the strange quirks of Swiss law governing residency rights. Mdaini, a plastics engineer, came to Switzerland in 1995 and married a Swiss woman two years later.
She has since died, and, under legislation governing the rights of foreigners married to Swiss citizens, separation within five years, whether by divorce or death, means the foreign spouse loses his or her residency permit.
"I couldn't believe it when I got the order to leave the country," said Mdaini, "I've lost everything now, including my job. I got a lawyer and appealed the decision but it was no good."
Climate of Mistrust
Rosemarie Simmen hopes cases like these will come forward to her proposed mediation centres if they are set up. But their experience so far at the hands of the Swiss authorities means people like Neziri, Sahiti and Mdaini find it difficult to trust officials, and so they continue their campaign for a general amnesty.
And, when parliament does debate the issue, the Swiss People's Party will oppose any relaxation in the laws governing illegal immigrants. Aliki Panayides, deputy general secretary of the party, told swissinfo it would be wrong to reward people who were breaking the law.
"Of course I have some sympathy with some of these cases," said Panayides, "but Switzerland also has rules which must be obeyed. Giving rights to these illegal immigrants just because they are protesting would not be fair to all the other people outside Switzerland who have applied legally for permits and are now waiting."
An impossible task
Bridging the gap between the demands on the left for a general amnesty, and the opposition from the right to any relaxation in the law at all, will be an impossible task.
"We must find a solution," said Gysling, "but we won't find a solution which will please everybody. It's clear some illegal immigrants will have to leave the country."
Gysling also believes the Swiss authorities need to mount a public information campaign aimed at overcoming the mistrust of foreigners.
"We need to show the Swiss people that immigrants enrich our life here in Switzerland," he said, "at the moment a lot of people don't realise this. And," he added, "we need to point out how our economy benefits from foreign workers."
Rosemarie Simmen too believes the question of illegal immigrants is one that touches the whole country.
"We have to ask ourselves," said Simmen, "whether it is worthy of a state to keep people in a condition where they are working for years, paying their taxes, and yet always living with this uncertainty over their future. I say it is unworthy of Switzerland, and so it is a problem the Swiss people must address."
by Imogen Foulkes