Opinion

Undocumented immigrants in Switzerland: Brace yourselves during COVID-19

by Laura Biscaglia and Marion Provencher
Published by The Graduate Press in French, 14 April 2020.

You think Ms. Rona is making your life miserable. You think this is getting worse by the day. Your anxiety has slowly moved from ‘I miss my friends ughhhh’ to ‘What planet does the Federal Council live on when it says Swiss people are social distancing?!’, and finally to ‘This is what an impending global economic crisis feels like’.

We’ve been writing every week about how privileged most of us are, and if you’re reading this, you’re likely one of the privileged ones. Consider this your weekly reminder that the COVID-19 outbreak is not only about you, so sit your privilege on your couch and get over yourself.

We’d like to talk about a group of people you rarely think about. We’ve said it many times, but let’s repeat it: pandemics reveal deep-seated inequalities within our societies. And no one knows it better than those who lack something so fundamental and so basic that it is often taken for granted: a legal status.

Do you have a valid Swiss residence permit? You’re covered; put it back in your wallet now. Not everyone has the luxury of owning that precious, precious piece of paper. Undocumented immigrants, or sans-papiers, are individuals who live and work in a country but lack citizenship or other legal immigration status. In Switzerland alone, it is estimated that at least 100,000 persons are undocumented. In Geneva specifically, approximately 13,000 persons do not hold a valid legal status. An ironic state of affairs for a city referred to as the Cité du refuge for its long history as a haven for those persecuted for religious or political reasons, in a country known for its adoption of neutrality as a foreign policy

Trying to sketch the profile of a classic undocumented immigrant is virtually impossible in Switzerland; there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ undocumented person. The vast majority of sans-papiers work, despite this being a violation of the law, which puts them in situations of precarity and dependency. It is estimated that most of them are women. According to the Conseil Fédéral, they come from South America, Eastern Europe, North Africa, Asia… Basically from all over the place. Many of them are employed in domestic work (almost half!). In an unsurprising plot twist that everybody saw coming, it is undocumented women of colour who work in the households of middle-upper class, usually white people, and do all that domestic work people won’t do if they can pay someone else for it instead

Other sectors that employ the sans-papiers are construction, catering, and agriculture. It is often reported that undocumented immigrants receive a salary that is much lower than the average Swiss (or no salary at all). They are dependent on the people who employ them illegally for their job stability, payment regularity, insurance and compensation. If they receive any, of course. Many are afraid to change an undesirable situation because of their lack of rights and support, and/or for fear of retaliation. Plus, it’s not like they can go to the police, you know?

Remember how excruciatingly difficult it was for you to find housing in Geneva? Now, imagine how that would be like without a permit, a regular job, and a network of friends and family to support you. Add to that the looming knowledge that your very presence here is considered a violation of the law.  

If you’ve reached the point where nothing seems interesting anymore on Netflix (let’s be real, podcasts are the new Netflix), it is likely that you’ll never understand life as an undocumented immigrant. Being ‘illegal’ (an expression that makes no sense but is often abused by the far-right and paired with the label ‘alien’) brings a life of fear. Women, men and children without a legal status are constantly one police raid away from being detained or deported. They tiptoe their way through life, trying to be invisible to the authorities, while also trying to survive themselves.

Situations of extreme precarity have been proven to have an impact on health. Living undocumented is stressful. The work is often physical (domestic work, construction, etc.), and the hours are long and difficult. By virtue of being immigrants, these women and men often live far away from their countries of origin and their families. Their physical and mental health suffers. While it is true that despite their (lack of) status, undocumented immigrants do have the right to subscribe to health insurance in Switzerland, as we all know too well, health insurance it doesn’t come for free. To access medical treatment, one must pay an (often incredibly high) monthly premium, and if they need care, will have to pay out of pocket the (often very high) deductible before their health insurance kicks in. Health insurance is a right that can be accessed by those who are aware of that right, and have the financial capacity to do so, even in one of the richest countries in the world. 

So, what’s the impact of COVID-19 on the sans-papiers? Well, well, well… Are you normally employing a maid or a nanny without a formal contract? If so, are you giving them paid leave during the pandemic? Yes, we thought so. You see, while the Swiss Federal Council is making available its largest-ever aid package (up to CHF 42 billion) to keep companies and employees afloat, some of the most vulnerable are being left to figure this whole mess out on their own. Are they not worthy of being acknowledged, to know that they won’t be abandoned by the government, too? Unemployment benefits and other forms of social welfare are hard to claim when you are not welcome. Has COVID-19 left you without the means to pay for the room you illegally rent for double the price? Remember, undocumented immigrants cannot legally sign a lease. Having problems feeding your family without your daily cash wage earned in the black market? That’s too bad.

But wait, there’s a way out. The Swiss Constitution grants asylum seekers whose legal residence in Switzerland was rejected the right to emergency aid to ensure a minimum standard of living until they are forced to depart. It’s fairly straightforward too. All they need to do is file a report to the competent authorities. What’s the catch? To receive this aid, a person needs to apply for legal residence first. In other words, they have to declare themselves to the authorities voluntarily. And there’s a big chance that they’ll be arrested and thrown out of the country once they declare their existence to the authorities, but hey, that’s a small price to pay to have food and shelter for a little while. Right? 

Economic repercussions are not even the least of their worries these days. How are these factors compounded during a pandemic? As we’ve said, while sans-papiers have the right (and the duty) to sign up for a health insurance policy regardless of their residence status, health insurance in Switzerland is expensive. Medical treatment is expensive. By definition, high premiums are expensive. It’s not hard to imagine that many undocumented immigrants cannot afford health insurance. While this already puts them at risk in normal times, we can’t even begin to envisage the implications during a pandemic. Try for a moment to picture your lungs collapsing due to COVID-19. Stabbing chest pains. Shortness of breath. Imagine that you can’t go to the hospital because you are afraid that the police will come and kick you out of the country where you have built a family, a routine, a life… let alone pay for a doctor’s appointment. 

Even leaving is not really an option. As Switzerland extended border control to all Schengen states to fight the spread of the new coronavirus, access to the world itself seems to have narrowed. There are few trains, few buses, no papers to fly out… You are virtually locked in a country where you have no real right to exist, not even in these dire times. And please, if you are undocumented, do not dare asking your neighbors for help in these dire times. This is because supporting illegal immigrants is an actual crime in Switzerland. You can forget about the ‘Love thy neighbour’ value that’s preached in church every Sunday.

At the time of Ms. Rona, some countries are taking steps to make the lives of the sans-papiers easier. This could be out of their kind hearts. Maybe the world post-Coronavirus will have no wars or borders, because we will have finally realised that we are all the same in the face of a lethal invisible enemy. Or maybe some governments are just painfully aware that the only way to stop the spread of the virus is to test and treat as much as possible. This is much easier to do when we all have legal access to healthcare and social security, without imminent fear of deportation. Whatever the reason, it’s the ethical thing to do, and a smart move. 

Switzerland, the ball is in your court.

Feature Image by Flickr user Molly Adams. Creative Commons license.

1 comment on “Undocumented immigrants in Switzerland: Brace yourselves during COVID-19

  1. Pingback: Un pays en arrêt: la situation des «sans-papiers» – The Graduate Press

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