Integration Bureaucratic ghosts: Switzerland’s “sans papiers”

B, C or F? A few letters that will decide how easy — or not — one’s life will be in Switzerland. Each type of residential status brings with it different advantages and hurdles. This is especially the case when it comes to work. Being an employer of people with a migration background, we at Valeriana asked ourselves what life is like when you want to work but aren’t allowed to. 

Who is allowed to work? Who isn’t? 

Several of our employees (still) have refugee status. In terms of the ability to work, this isn’t too big of an issue. Although every new employee has to be registered with the Amt für Wirtschaft und Arbeit (Office for the Economy and Labour), once this is done, the way to financial independence is largely paved and free. Still, there are around 50,000 to 99,000 people in Switzerland who live here but aren’t allowed to work. Lacking the necessary residential status, they become known as “sans papiers”, which, according to the law, aren’t supposed to exist. No official residential status means no work permit which means no social benefits. No social benefits, on the other hand, means that securing a financial income stream becomes all the more important: Sans papiers urgently need to find work — but they’re not allowed to. Where does this lead? Well, hello there, black market!
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Bureaucratic ghosts

According to experts, nine out of ten sans papiers work. Around half of them work in private households. It is estimated that every 16th household in Switzerland employs a sans papiers person — in other words, a person who works but has nothing to protect them in the event of an accident or illness. The life of a bureaucratic ghost is above all one thing: unstable. But how do things get that bad in the first place? 

A 2015 study by the Staatssekretariat für Migration (SEM) defines sans papiers as people living in Switzerland without a residence permit for more than one month and for an unforeseeable amount of time. This may be because they arrived in Switzerland illegally, their permit was not extended or their asylum claim was rejected. Since sans papiers don’t exist officially, Swiss law provides no special regulations for them. Although there are basic rights that also apply to people without valid residence status, it is almost impossible to demand these without “outing” oneself and thus running the risk of being expelled from the country.

What now?

The Sans-Papiers-Anlaufstelle Zürich (SPAZ) helps people without a valid residence permit with the hurdles they face in their everyday lives. They support migrants in all aspects of daily life and educate the state and the public about their precarious situation. This also means entering into dialogue time and time again — which is something that we want to support. How? For example, by giving you the opportunity to send us questions on the topic, which we will then answer on this page together with the SPAZ team as well as several sans papiers. Please send us all of your questions to Because we firmly believe that real integration starts with curiosity, openness and empathy.

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