Oct 13, 1999

report: "Undocumented Migrants Run Their Own School"


Switzerland is a tough place for asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants. In Zurich, they have been running a remarkable campaign for the past year, challenging the canton's asylum policy. Now, they have opened their own school.

"Please show me your homework!" Bah Saidou tells his students. Some hand in their papers, others haven't done anything, and a few are new in the class. The classroom is packed full. The lesson of the day focuses on grammar. This isn't a regular school though, Saidou isn't a usual teacher, and the students aren't quite common either. The class takes place in a squatted, autonomous school, and Saidou is a so-called "sans-papiers" - an undocumented migrant. The more than 60 students in the class are asylum-seekers, immigrants with temporary admission, and people whose stay is illegal under Swiss law.

It is estimated that Switzerland is home to 100,000 to 200,000 sans-papiers. Among them, three main groups can be distinguished: the first group consists of those who entered the country on work permits, didn't get them renewed but decided to stay. Those who came to Switzerland looking for clandestine employment make up the second category. As a consequence of Switzerland's harsh asylum policy, a third group is steadily growing. It contains migrants whose asylum request was rejected or not even looked into, and refugees who've lost their temporary admission when they were asked to leave because their countries of origin where considered "safe to return".

Saidou, one of the teachers at the school, is from Guinea. He came to Switzerland in September 2002. A few months later, he received a so-called NEE, a "non-admissibility-decision" on his asylum claim. Despite being obliged to leave the country, he stayed, and has been living in Switzerland illegally for the past six years. When in January 2008 the new asylum law came into effect, Saidou's living conditions drastically worsened. No longer receiving social aid, he was placed in an emergency centre and has been surviving on minimal assistance provided by Zurich's Department of Social Affairs.

The new Swiss asylum law left a tiny door open for illegalised migrants: The "provision for cases of hardship" allows sans-papiers, who have lived in Switzerland for at least five years and have "integrated very well", to file a request for a residency permit. The cantonal authorities of Zurich, however, put extremely difficult conditions for applicants, such as comparatively high skills in German language. At the same time, undocumented migrants have neither opportunity nor the means to visit language classes.

In December 2008, a group of sans-papiers squatted at a church in Zurich for more than two weeks, demanding their right to stay in Switzerland, and better living conditions. "Shortly after the occupation of the church and the talks with the canton's council, we and our supporters decided to establish language classes on our own," says Saidou. The project started with about 30 people. Today it serves more than 150 students. Classes for three different language levels - A1, A2 and B1 - are held.

Berhanu Tesfaye is one of the students at the school. Born in Ethiopia, he fled to Switzerland in 2000 and was issued a NEE twice. Then he filed a request under the hardship provision, but failed: "My application was rejected because my German language skills weren't good enough", Tesfaye explains. "Then I came to the school. Three months later I successfully passed an exam in A2, and four months later in B1. The certificate allows me to hand in an application again."

Waiting for the class to begin, Joao Antonio from Angola says he's happy with the course. He's been living in Switzerland for the past 15 years, most of the time illegally. His situation worsened when the new asylum law came into effect: "I lost my job and my home. Now I live in an emergency centre. I want to apply for a residency permit under the hardship provision and improve my language skills, that's why I've come to the school."

For undocumented migrants, the school is the only way to learn German. A woman from Nigeria who prefers to remain anonymous explains: "I came here in 2002. In 2003 I was allowed to attend classes, but this was stopped in 2004. I received a NEE and was no longer permitted to attend language classes. This school is my only way to learn the language properly."

Another student, Sayyed Mohammad Mumi, says learning German facilitates his daily life. He fled from Somalia and came to Switzerland in 2008. His asylum request was rejected, but he obtained temporary admission to Switzerland because he currently can't be sent back to his homeland. "For the first six months of my stay, I could attend classes," Mumi says. "Because the follow-up course is booked up, I decided to join the class at the autonomous school."

Bah Saidou, Mumi's teacher, seems to enjoy teaching German. He's assisted by a lady from Zurich. Irene Holliger says she's amazed by the students' motivation to learn and the joy in their eyes. She regards her engagement as an act of solidarity: "I'm retired. I have free time and want to support the refugees. All of us work as volunteers."

Although the autonomous school is in a squatted building, some expenses accrue. Berhanu Tesfaye regrets that some students can't attend all three classes per week. "Many students live in emergency centres far away from the school. We've raised some money with fundraising meals and a party. This allows us to cover travel expenses for many of the students, but it's not sufficient." Sans-papiers receive the equivalent of 60-70 Swiss francs (about as many dollars) per week if they register at the Department of Migration in Zurich. The amount isn't paid in cash, but in cheques for the biggest Swiss supermarket chain Migros.

Hardly able to survive on their cheques, the sans-papiers are bound to spend all of the money at Migros. More than a year ago, they and their supporters started to undermine the authorities' practice. Once a week they gather at the Refugees Welcome Café in Zurich, where they can sell their cheques for cash. This allows the migrants to spend their limited income a little more freely, for example for train tickets.

Bah Saidou is disturbed by the fact that Swiss politicians keep demanding foreigners' integration into Swiss society, but don't give them an opportunity to do so. His colleague Berhanu Tesfaye agrees: "Integration consists of different aspects such as access to education, the labour market and decent housing. However, we have no chance to visit a school, are forbidden to work, and live in fenced-off emergency-centres often far away from towns and villages." The autonomous school sent letters to communal authorities, asking for financial support to cover people's travel costs. The call has remained unanswered so far.

Undocumented migrants live in constant fear of being arrested, imprisoned and deported. On the blackboard of Saidou's classroom, a picture reminds students of Maria Dennis Díaz, a fellow sans-papiers who was deported to Colombia on Sep. 20. Diaz had lived in Switzerland for 12 years. Her 17- year-old son Juan Jacobo was also arrested. Despite being under-age, he was separated from his mother and is currently in custody.

Nevertheless, Tesfaye says he isn't afraid of a police raid at the school. "The police know that I live in an emergency centre. If they want to arrest me, they can come there or send me a summoning. Learning a language isn't a criminal act anyway."

Zurich's authorities are aware of the school. Hans Hollenstein, the canton's security director, admits the school is doing something positive. "They allow the migrants some integration for the time being. We can tolerate that. However, I want to make clear that these people are illegally here and have to leave the country as soon as possible."

For the activists, the school isn't just about the language classes. Bah Saidou, a major contributor to the sans-papiers' campaign, explains: "This is my way to struggle. We have realised that we have to stick together. The school is part of our struggle." Since squatting the church last winter, Zurich's sans-papiers have kept demanding better living conditions. "Unlike Zurich, governments of other cantons have proved more flexibility with sans-papiers," adds Tesfaye. "That's why we've started to establish our own structures. After squatting the church, we've talked to a lot of politicians and succeeded in raising awareness for the conditions we're living in, but on the ground nothing has improved so far."

In mid-August, one of the sans-papiers' busiest activists, Ishmail Fayé, was arrested. The man from Sierra Leone had prevented several deportation attempts. For the past year, he lived under Zurich's emergency regime and was forced to move from one emergency centre to the next on a weekly basis. Currently in custody at Zurich's airport prison, Fayé speaks of the canton's policy: "They want us to leave the country. That's why they're applying this strict regime. They try to make your life unbearable, so you leave."

The campaign for collective regularization, the right to stay for all, faces a rocky path. While other European countries such as Italy or Spain have repeatedly granted collective regularisations for thousands of undocumented migrants, Switzerland's government remains far from even considering it an option.

This report was written by Ray Smith and was published here by IPS Inter Press Service.