Integration In conversation with Bea Schwager of SPAZ

It was a hot summer day when we first heard Bea Schwager talk about her work at SPAZ, the Information Office for Undocumented Migrants in Zurich. She had attended the “enough.” event at ParkPlatz in Zurich together with three other women, all of whom were once Sans Papiers (undocumented migrants, literally “those without papers”) themselves or still were. Here, they did what SPAZ — in addition to legal and social counselling — does best, namely raising awareness about the living conditions of people who live in Switzerland without a valid residence permit.

Bea Schwager, head of the Information Office for Undocumented Migrants in Zurich (SPAZ)

When we meet Bea for our interview, it’s already autumn. She welcomes us to the Kalkbreite building, where her office is located. When SPAZ was founded in 2005, she still had to do everything on her own. Now, her team includes eight permanent part-time employees, as well as several community workers and volunteers.

The issue of migration policy has occupied her since her childhood. She grew up in an industrial town where many of her classmates and neighbours had a migration background. Discrimination against them bothered her from the very beginning. When she became politically active in her adolescence, the issue remained a priority for her. “In the mid-90s, I was part of a volunteer project — or rather a political struggle — that helped rejected asylum seekers from Sri Lanka,” Bea recalls. “We set up a so-called “Wandering Refuge”, a symbolic shelter, in Zurich. For five around months, we toured various institutions with it and tried to effect political change for the 50 rejected asylum seekers that came with us.”
Because of the media attention that the project received, more and more Sans Papiers from all over Switzerland came to Zurich for answers, especially to their legal questions. When the project’s lawyers reached the limits of their capacities, Bea also began to familiarise herself with asylum law and then also migration law.

In her leadership position at SPAZ, this knowledge continues to be crucial for her work. On the one hand, she and her colleagues work in an advisory capacity, though on the other hand, they also try to effect political change: “Over the years — and I can say this with confidence — we have definitely managed to make this issue an important topic of discussion. Our demand is the same as it was in the beginning: we demand the kind of collective regularisation that has already been implemented in surrounding countries. Especially in countries in southern Europe, but also in France, Luxembourg or Belgium.”
The regularisation programmes that Bea refers to gives people without residence status the opportunity to obtain a residence permit by fulfilling certain criteria and securing work. And this is done without having to examine each case individually. “So, it is rather straightforward and doesn’t involve much bureaucracy.”

The corresponding petition to implement a Swiss version of the so-called collective regularisation policy that SPAZ submitted to the National Council in 2001 was rejected. The alternative to this, the so-called “hardship case provision” for people who are demonstrably well integrated into society economically, linguistically and socially, promises only very little relief:
“Since this hardship case provision has come into place, so for a good 20 years, approximately 10,000 applications have been approved across Switzerland. At least 9 out of 10 of these were approved in French-speaking Switzerland. In the canton of Zurich, only 30 cases have been approved over the same 20 years. So, as you can imagine, we’re actually having to advise Sans Papiers against making such an application.” Because every application means having to disclose everything: all acquaintances, relatives, friends, simply everything. And if the application is rejected, it means certain deportation from Switzerland.

And this would be fatal for many Sans Papiers and people who depend on their being here. Because it is usually work that brings people to Switzerland. They must take on the most precarious living situations because there simply is no other way. “Many Sans Papiers are here to financially support their relatives in their country of origin,” says Bea. “Whether it’s the education of their children, or because someone in the family is ill, or because there is simply no prospect of paid work in their own country. The income of a single Sans Papier is often the basis of the livelihoods of several other people. And this is the case despite the fact that their estimated average income is only 1,5000 francs.”

And how this small amount of money actually gets earned is another story. Bea tells us how last year’s lockdown highlighted the extent of the inhumane conditions under which many Sans Papiers have to work. Many have lost their work and had to turn to SPAZ: “Suddenly, people showed up at our office with awful stories. These people were working under conditions similar to human trafficking.”
Bea tells of people who practically didn’t speak a word of German and who were drained and scared after what they had experienced, and of people who would offer you a brief glimpse behind the curtain and then disappear behind it themselves shortly after. “I just don’t think that it’s acceptable that the Swiss population and economy benefit from the work of the Sans Papiers, but that we’re at the same time not ready to let them perform their work openly. Instead, they are made to slave away under inhumane conditions, and I find that repugnant. Something urgently needs to be done about that.”

We tried for a long time to find a positive, uplifting ending to this story. But nothing that Bea shared with us was positive. The only thing that gives us hope is her tireless motivation to keep working for the Sans Papiers. As long as Bea and her colleagues at SPAZ do what they do, the issue will not disappear under the radar, just like all the people she works for every day.

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