The children of illegal immigrants, or “sans papiers”, who have grown up in Switzerland have come a step closer to being allowed to do apprenticeships.
On Tuesday the Senate passed a motion calling on the government to allow such children who have been through the Swiss school system to take up an apprenticeship after they leave school. The House of Representatives backed it in March.
At present children of sans papiers can attend school until the minimum school leaving age and are then allowed to continue their education, but those who leave school cannot begin apprenticeships and are left with no further prospects.
According to the Swiss City Association, 300-500 such children leave school every year and, of those, 200-400 want to begin an apprenticeship – 0.25-0.5 per cent of the 80,000 apprenticeships undertaken every year in Switzerland.
“We’re very happy that the Senate passed the motion, because an unequal treatment of young people has been removed,” Renate Amstutz, director of the Swiss City Association, told swissinfo.ch.
“There’s nothing they can do about the fact that their parents are living in Switzerland illegally. It’s not right that young people are punished for that.”
Amstutz explained that illegal immigrants live predominantly in Swiss cities, where they value the anonymity and can work and be economically independent.
“I also think the Senate recognised that this isn’t a question of legalising their status – it’s not about sorting out their residence situation – and I think that made it easier for the Senate to back this motion.”
Travail Suisse, an umbrella organisation with about 170,000 members in various sectors of industry, also welcomed the result, saying valuable workforce talent wouldn’t be wasted in the future.
Nevertheless the vote was close: 23 senators backed the motion, proposed by centre-right Christian Democrat Luc Barthassat from Geneva; 20 didn’t.
It is now up to the government to produce a draft law, which will then face further scrutiny from parliament.
The debate illustrated once again the wide gaps between the political parties over the issues connected with immigration.
“Sans papiers are lawbreakers,” said Maximilian Reimann from the rightwing Swiss People’s Party. “Switzerland shouldn’t degenerate into a refuge for illegal immigrants.”
Opponents argued that the problem was just being shifted, not solved: once these young people completed their apprenticeship, they would still be illegal and would be blocked from the job market.
Supporters on the other hand argued that, in addition to the principle of fairness, apprenticeships were the best integration.
“The alternative is petty crime,” said Anita Fetz from the centre-left Social Democratic Party.
Helen Leumann from the centre-right Radicals asked: “Are we really so hard that we don’t give these young people a chance?”
Her party colleague Dick Marty reminded those present that societies were judged on how they treated their weakest members.
For her part, Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf came out against the motion, saying the 26 cantons already had the possibility to allow apprenticeships in exceptional cases.
The vote on apprenticeships is of particular relevance for the French-speaking canton of Vaud and the cantonal capital, Lausanne.
In February the city council triggered heated debate with its proposal to take on young sans papiers as apprentices in the city administration as of 2011.
Despite strong objections both inside and outside parliament, the Vaud cantonal parliament adopted a motion asking the canton to push for the same measure at federal level.
Sandrine Salerno, mayor of Geneva, expressed her “satisfaction” and “relief”.
“Parliament listened to the cities,” she said, adding that giving this opportunity to sans papiers reflected a “very positive evolution of mentality”.
She stressed however that Geneva wouldn’t favour illegal immigrants looking for an apprenticeship over Swiss applicants – each case would be assessed individually.
The city association admitted the situation for sans papiers varied greatly from canton to canton, but she said it would be wrong to claim it was a French-Swiss phenomenon.
“It affects not only French-speaking Switzerland but all large Swiss cities. We presume that the problem exists in German-speaking cities as well,” spokeswoman Amstutz said.
An unrepresentative poll by swissinfo.ch earlier in the year found 57 per cent of readers supported letting children of sans papiers take up an apprenticeship after leaving school.
Rejected asylum seekers who do not leave Switzerland are known as sans-papiers (people without documents) and are not allowed to work. They rely on cantons for subsidies and to support applications for special "hardship" visas that allow them to find employment after five years.
An estimated 300,000 people reside illegally in Switzerland, a tenth of whom are in canton Zurich.
According to non-governmental organisation statistics, 50-60 per cent of illegal immigrants spend 18-21 years without leaving the country.
The children of these "invisible" workers are guaranteed a basic education up to the age of 17 and can go to Swiss universities but the doors to professional training institutions remain shut.
Housing is one of the major headaches for sans-papiers, for whom rents are often 50-70 per cent higher than the going market rate.
A particularly complex issue is the question of mixed marriages between Swiss and foreigners.
In the event of divorce, the Swiss keeps all their rights. There have been cases where the foreign parent has been deported and is only allowed to see their children once a year – if they can afford the trip.
Even more serious is the situation of foreign women who suffer abuse and domestic violence. In the event of divorce or legal separation (in the first five years of marriage), they lose their rights to residency and may be expelled. This leads to a "wall of silence" over numerous cases of assault or rape within marriage.