Switzerland – land of immigration

At the end of the 19th century, Switzerland changed from a land of emigrants to one of immigrants. Political refugees sought asylum here whilst the economy recruited foreign labourers for the parched Swiss labour market. Immigration had significant effects on economic and social life in Switzerland.

Immigration and political asylum 1848-1945

During the 1880s, the Confederation began monitoring refugees and immigrants – accusing them of anarchist activities. The Confederation founded the Immigration Police (1909-1998) in 1917. This measure reflected an increasingly more restrictive stance adopted by the authorities towards foreigners. The Confederation restricted the free settlement and professional mobility of foreign residents to an ever greater extent under the keywords "foreign infiltration".

Labour migration after the Second World War

After 1947, companies in Switzerland recruited an increasing number of workers from Italy and other neighbouring countries to counteract shortages on the labour market. The idea was for guest workers to return to their home countries after a certain amount of time.

Trade and industry depended on these workers. At the same time, the trade unions were concerned that the low wages paid to guest workers could put those of Swiss workers under pressure. Xenophobic movements such as the National Action heated up the debate on "foreign infiltration" and submitted anti-immigration initiatives.

After the Second World War, the Federal Office for Economic Development and Labour (1870-1998) and its successor organisations at the Ministry of the Economy played a pivotal role in regulating the immigration of foreign labourers.

Asylum after the Second World War

After the Second World War, many refugees from countries involved in wars or with conditions akin to civil war found sanctuary in Switzerland – for example, refugees from Hungary (1956), Tibet (1963) or Cambodia and Vietnam (1979-1982). The benevolent attitude towards asylum seekers changed when refugees from Turkey and Sri Lanka and from other Arabian, African and south-east European countries travelled to Switzerland. The number of asylum seekers climaxed in during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.

The fonds of the Delegate for Refugee Issues (1945-1989) and the different Federal Offices, in particular in the Federal Department of Justice and Police, contain extensive documentation on the topic of refugees.

Extensive federal competency

The Swiss Federal Archives hold large fonds on the topics of immigration and asylum. The documents cover the entire period from the founding of the Federal Archives in 1798 and were created in different departments and offices. The size of the fonds is explained by the fact that the Confederation has extensive competencies in this area.

For instance, it rules on issues relating to civil law and civic rights (settlement, permission to marry, nationalisation) and decides on the acceptance and expulsion of refugees. Welfare and the negotiation of interstate treaties (1900-2012) are the domains of the Federal Department of Home Affairs and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs , whilst the Federal Department of Justice and Police is responsible for civil rights issues, monitoring and expulsion.

The most significant documents relating to the period from 1848 to 1930 can be found in the fonds of the Police Authority (1713-1975) and the Judiciary (1798-1985) and also in the fonds of the National Defence (1848-1950) and Foreign Affairs (1848-1895), depending on the matter in hand.

Tips for further research

  • Historical Dictionary of Switzerland with an article on immigration (ger).
  • Federal archives of the cantons (ger): many documents on the topic of immigration and asylum can be found in the fonds of the police (immigration police, refugee control and accommodation), the directorates for internal or "political" affairs (nationalisation, support benefits for destitute foreigners and refugees) and the unemployment agencies (work permits, etc.).
  • Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (ger) and individual trade unions: extensive documentation on foreigners and labour market policy.
  • Archives of Contemporary History at the ETH Zurich: archives of the Swiss Federation of Commerce and Industry (formerly Vorort, now economiesuisse) and of the Swiss Federation of Employers; archive of Valentin Oehen (important protagonist of the more recent anti-immigrant movement).
  • Swiss Social Archives in Zurich: regional trade union archives and the private archives of the "Federazione delle Colonie Libere Italiane in Svizzera" (the oldest existing emigrant organisation in Switzerland).

Publications of the Federal Archives

Arlettaz, Gérald und Silvia, Les initiatives populaires liées à l'immigration et à la présence étrangères, in: Werkstatt Bundesverfassung (PDF, 22 MB, 04.08.2014): Kommentare und Inventar zur Geschichte der schweizerischen Bundesverfassung 1848-1998, publ. by the Swiss Federal Archives, Bern 1998, p. 89-140.

Arlettaz, Gérald und Silvia, Les Chambres fédérales face à la présence et à l'immigration étrangères (1914-1922), in: Studien und Quellen, Vols. 16/17, publ. by the Swiss Federal Archives, Bern 1990-1991, p. 9-155.

Cerutti, Mauro, Un secolo di emigrazione italiana in Svizzera (1870-1970), attraverso le fonti dell'Archivio federale, Studien und Quellen, Vol. 20, Bern 1994, p. 11-104.

Das Asyl in der Schweiz nach den Revolutionen von 1848, Studien und Quellen Bd. 25, hg. vom Schweizerischen Bundesarchiv, Bern 1999.

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Last modification 04.11.2019

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