- Imogen Foulkes
- BBC News, Ginebra
For decades, the children of migrants who have moved to Switzerland are demanding an apology for a policy they say has destroyed their families and traumatized many of them.
From the 1950s to the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of workers traveled to Switzerland, first from Italy and later from Spain, Portugal and the former Yugoslavia.
They worked in factories, highways, construction, restaurants and hotels. Switzerland’s great economic success is undoubtedly due to them.
But there were flaws in the system.
Migrants were given work permits for between 9 and 12 months, and many lived in camps. His only activity in Switzerland was to work.
Also other family members including minor children are not accepted.
Married couples could work in the same place, but their children had to stay in the country of their birth because of the prescribed work permit.
It is prohibited to bring children
Egidio Stigliano, now 60, remembers his grandmother taking him to the station when he was 3 years old to watch a train leave for Switzerland from Italy.
“I didn’t know my mother was on the train,” he recalled.
“They thought I was too young to tell what was going on. But my mother wanted to see me one last time.”
This system would have worked if the migrant workers were actually on a temporary basis. But their permits were renewed annually Some worked in Switzerland all their lives.
Melinda Nadge Oponji and her older brother were only one year old when they were raised by their grandmother in Vojvodina, Serbia. Despite the temporary “child-free” leave, Melinda’s parents believed they would be allowed to bring their children once they settled in the country.
“They wrote letters to the immigration police, but they rejected them. The police were very strict. I think it scarred them for life, and of course, us.” Melinda believes foreign worker laws “really tore our family apart.”
When parents are desperate to be reunited with their children, many wonder why they haven’t come home. But, like migrant workers, the money they earn abroad prevents poverty at home.
Italy, Portugal or Kosovo, families and even Entire villages depended on remittances from Switzerland. Meanwhile, the country’s economy thrived thanks to foreign workers.
Christina Schulz, a historian and migration expert at the University of Neuchâtel (Switzerland), points out that after World War II, the Swiss system of recruiting labor from neighboring countries was highly valued.
“Those countries were devastated by war…and Switzerland needed workers. Southern Italy was poor. It was almost considered a humanitarian act for them to work here.”
But many parents, including Egidio Stigliano, could not bear to be separated from their children. So, in secret, they developed various strategies to deal with immigration restrictions. Instead of begging the authorities to let their children in, They kidnapped and hid them.
Egidio traveled when he was 7 years old. “From the first moment I arrived in Switzerland, I disappeared,” he says. “My dad couldn’t explain immigration policy to a kid, so he told me not to let anyone see me, hide and play in the woods. So I did.”
He did not go to school because he was in hiding. When Egidio broke his arm, they had to find a doctor who was calm instead of going straight to the hospital.
But one day, in the woods, Egidio saw another group and couldn’t resist playing with them.
That afternoon the police knocked on his door and told his parents that the boy had to leave. Only the intervention of Egidio’s father, who agreed to finance his migration, made his stay possible.
It is estimated that thousands of children were in hiding in Switzerland in the 1970s. Today, the historical museum of the watchmaking town of La Saux de Fonds houses an exhibit that shows what their lives were like.
Few mothers agree They locked their children in the houses during the day So they could make sure no one saw them. Children can play outside at night.
Many families lived in small studios because, as the exhibit illustrates, a larger apartment might be more suitable for a family than could be doubted.
“It’s hard to imagine children locked up at home and living alone,” said museum director Francesco Garufo. “This is recent history… it practically happened yesterday.”
Historian Christina Schulz says these children’s stories are particularly shocking given Switzerland’s devotion to family life after the war.
“Switzerland’s new ideology was that the family was so sacred that it must be protected. It was argued that women should not work and stay at home with their children; they could not vote until 1971. The idea of systematically destroying migrant workers’ families is truly astonishing”.
Gradually, Switzerland’s strategy was undermined.
Migrant workers began to protest, and local police and teachers turned a blind eye to “illegal” children in their communities, even in some of the towns where they had established themselves. Secret schools For migrant children.
Noted Swiss author Max Frisch joined the debate when he wrote, “We wanted workers, but instead we got people.”
The children, including Melinda and Egidio, began reuniting with their parents. Melinda, who joined them at age 5, is now a writer and musician in Zurich and Egidio is a neuroscientist in St Gallen.
In a sense, they were very lucky: after pressure from Rome, the children of Italian immigrants were finally able to join their parents in Switzerland after working for more than 5 years. Melinda’s parents eventually found a sympathetic officer and were allowed to bring their children.
But although it was sometimes used arbitrarily, the law banning children was long overdue and many families were separated for decades.
In 2002, when Switzerland agreed to join the EU’s free movement of people policy, the seasonal work permit was abolished. Today, the children of migrant workers are adults and many have formed a group, including Melinda and Egidio. At least demand recognition for what they did.
“First, I want a Tzucloa from the Swiss state,” says Melinda.
“I want the story of migrant workers to be in the Swiss history books, because thousands of families were affected,” Egidio says.
There will be an honest retelling of the story and an apology. Switzerland has already done this with its World War II policy of repatriating Jewish refugees, as well as single mothers or people from socially “troubled” families who were taken from their children and sent to work on farms, where they often suffered abuse.
Financial compensation is also mentioned, but Egidio recognition is more important. “The time I spent with my family, at school, I can never get back. There is no compensation.”
A reassessment of history has already begun with a research project by Christina Schulz at the University of Neuchatel and the Museum of La Saux de Fonds.
But for the museum’s director, Francesco Caruffo, it’s about more than confronting Switzerland’s past. As Europe continues its negative debate on immigration, he thinks lessons can be learned for the future.
“A rich country with thousands of children in hiding without social rights. We don’t have the model we want in Europe today. So we have to think about these types of migrant options.”
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