Switzerland – land of emigration

Migration to and from Switzerland was already a constant occurrence prior to 1800. Mercenaries joining foreign armies was the most significant form of emigration for a long time. But Switzerland did not really become a country of emigration until the 19th century. Many left Switzerland due to poverty. Emigration agencies often placed them in Swiss colonies; the Federal Emigration Office monitored emigration.

Controlling emigration: the Emigration Office

The federal authorities rarely had anything to do with the issue of emigration until the 1870s. The Confederation did not begin to control emigration until the first large waves of emigrants left for European countries and further overseas. To protect emigrants, the Confederation passed an act in 1880 and set up a Federal Emigration Office (1876-1953) in 1888 intended to monitor the activities of emigration agencies. These agencies placed the emigrants with economic colonisation projects, mainly in North and South America. The "register of emigrants" maintained by the Emigration Office lists the emigrants' names, dates of birth, home towns and the ports of departure and arrival for the years 1910 to 1953. The register can be accessed digitally from the workstations in the reading rooms at the Swiss Federal Archives.

The Confederation's foreign representations, whose numbers increased during the second half of the 19th century, significantly supported the so-called Swiss colonies. Emigration, colonisation projects and the establishment of consular representations are therefore closely linked. The fonds of embassies and consulates are listed by location. Switzerland's foreign representations created matriculation files and maintained registers. They used them to list the Swiss citizens who reported to their offices. Person-related files were created in some cases.

General documents on emigration can be found in the fonds of the current Federal Department of Foreign Affairs and its preceding organisations. The fonds of the Federal Office for Economic Development and Labour (1870-1998) contain documents on the economic aspects of migration.

Swiss colonies, Swiss associations and charity organisations

More extensive documents exist on specific migration agencies and colonisation projects, for instance on the New Switzerland colony in Tennessee (USA). In general, person-related files are the exception, in particular with regard to the Swiss citizens who emigrated before 1910.

A number of organisations helped Swiss citizens to emigrate and when they arrived in the new home country. Some of them have donated their archives to the Swiss Federal Archives, for instance the Swiss charity organisation in Guatemala City (1888-1953) or the Swiss associations in New York (1882-1955) and Cairo (1870-1989). The Swiss-Russian Office (1918-1958), a part of the Federal Department of Justice and Police, organised support activities and repatriation measures during and after the Russian revolution of 1917. The office collaborated with Secrusse (1918-1951), a society providing aid and credit that has also donated its files to the Swiss Federal Archives. Additional support benefits are documented in the person-related files of the Federal Police Department (1841-1991), for instance on welfare for Swiss abroad or on passport matters.

Tips for further research

  • Historical Dictionary of Switzerland with an article on emigration (ger).
  • Swiss Economic Archives (ger): archives of some emigration agencies and colonisation associations.
  • Archives of Contemporary History at the ETH Zurich: private archives of persons who emigrated from Switzerland during the first half of the 20th century and in connection with the Second World War.
  • Federal archives of the cantons (ger): various fonds, partially with documents on emigration prior to 1800.
  • Cantonal Archives of Lucerne (ger): the fonds of the "police authorities" contain documents on the emigration of citizens from Lucerne dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries as well as a names list of persons who emigrated to Brazil in 1819; additional documents on migration can be found in the archives of the "Schweizerischer Piusverein" (Swiss Pius Society).
  • Cantonal Archives of Freiburg (ger): documents relating to the citizens of Freiburg who emigrated to Brazil in 1819 and founded the town of Nova Friburgo.
  • Basel Mission (ger): archive and extensive photo collection on Swiss citizens who worked as missionaries predominantly in Africa and Asia.

Publications of the Federal Archives

Arlettaz, Gérald, L'émigration suisse outre-mer de 1815 à 1920, Studien und Quellen Band 1, hg. vom Schweizerischen Bundesarchiv, Bern 1975, S. 31-92.

Arlettaz, Gérald, «Les suisses de l'étranger» et l'identité nationale, Studien und Quellen Band 1, hg. vom Schweizerischen Bundesarchiv, Bern 1986, S. 5-35.

Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv (Hg.), Die Auslandschweizer im 20. Jahrhundert, Studien und Quellen, Band 28, Bern 2002.

Veyrassat, Béatrice, Les Suisses et la Suisse au Brésil (1817-1930). Le renouvellement des communautés d'affaires ou le recul de l'influence économique de la Suisse française, Studien und Quellen, Band 21, hg. vom Schweizerischen Bundesarchiv, Bern 1995, S. 11-44.

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Last modification 04.11.2019

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