Problematic handling of transients

"Social reformers" considered "vagabonding" as an evil to be overcome by a progressive society for moral and economic reasons. Regular work, a fixed abode and schooling for children: these were the recipes aimed at integrating fringe groups such travellers or the Yeniche people into non-transient society. They were applied through a mixture of aid and force – for instance via the Pro Juventute's "Relief organisation for vagabond children".

First chased away, then naturalised

So-called beggar hunts aimed at driving travellers and the poor out of a given district took place well into the 19th century. Between the years 1849 and 1853, the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland initiated a comprehensive police effort across Switzerland to track down the Stateless, register and photograph them, and force them to become resident. The related documents - including the famous photographs of pioneering Bernese photographer Carl Durheim - can be found in the series 09.1.4. Heimatlose (stateless persons). The SFA has digitized the collection of Carl Durheim's police photographs of stateless persons and published on Wikimedia Commons.

Interned, registered and deported

After 1900, it became a widely held view that vagabonding was a hereditary illness, similar to criminality. Prejudices of this nature applied not only to vagabonding Swiss nationals but also to transients from other countries. In 1906, the Federal Council closed the country's borders to transients and prohibited railway and shipping companies from transporting them. The Department of Justice and the Police had all Sinti and Roma registered, interned and deported between 1913 and 1914. Their data was entered into the central "gypsy register". These people were systematically persecuted and murdered under National Socialist rule, yet Switzerland's borders remained closed to them. A large proportion of the documents relating to Swiss policy towards the Roma and Sinti people can be found in the fonds of the Police Authority  (1713-1975) (series 10.5.2 "Gypsies and unregistered persons") and in sub-fonds of the Federal Police Division (1841-1991). The central "gypsy register", on the other hand, no longer exists.

The vagabond children

From 1926 to 1972, the private welfare foundation "Pro Juventute" implemented a program aimed at re-educating the children of travellers and the Yeniche people in Switzerland. To this end, the foundation established a "Relief organisation for vagabond children". Re-education meant taking the children and teenagers away from their families and placing them in homes or with foster parents. Custodial measures were often applied: parents were forced to relinquish parental custody and a legal guardian was appointed to take care of the children. Many children in Switzerland were rehomed during the years between the wars; the approach towards rehoming Yeniche children was systematic. Many "vagabond children" and also their parents were placed in work homes, penal institutions or psychiatric clinics.

The programme was tolerated and supported by the Confederation, the cantons and municipalities as well as care institutions, homes and private individuals. There was a small amount of criticism and resistance, but it was not until the magazine "Schweizerischer Beobachter" spearheaded a campaign in 1973 that the "Relief organisation" was finally dissolved. Since then, the people concerned and their relatives have fought for compensation and for the concerns of travellers to be recognised. In 1986, Federal President Alphons Egli apologised to those concerned for the support granted to the "Relief organisation" by the Confederation.

The Swiss Federal Archives took over the documents of the Relief organisation for vagabond children (1855-1989) of Pro Juventute in 1987. They contain around 120 family and 800 person-related files, whereby a number of files can exist for one and the same person. Person-related files contain decisions made by guardianship authorities, accounts for assets belonging to persons of incompetence, adoption certificates, correspondence with homes and authorities, letters from or to wards, identity documents and some photographs. The fonds also contain donor indices, accounting documents, annual reports, newspaper excerpts and documents from meetings.

In addition to these extensive fonds, there are also documents of the Files Committee on Vagabond Children (1928-1993) and the Foundation Supervisory Authority of the Federal Department of Home Affairs (1915-1946).

In 2010, the Federal Archives also took over a compilation of 92 person-related files of the Seraphisches Liebeswerk Solothurn (1928-2010), related to persons who were members of transient families. Both Pro Juventute and the "Seraphisches Liebeswerk" took care of children from such families. The Federal Archives do not hold any documents from other facilities of the Liebeswerk at this moment in time.

Tips for further research

  • Federal archives of the cantons (ger) and the archives of towns, municipalities and communities (in particular in police, public welfare and guardianship files): extensive material on poverty and guardianship policy as concerns of the municipalities and cantons. Please note: special protection terms apply to police, public welfare and guardianship files.
  • Cantonal Archives of Lucerne (ger): documents relating to the "Relief organisation for vagabond children" in the repository of the Catholic relief organisation "Seraphisches Liebeswerk Luzern".
  • "A Future for Swiss Travellers" Foundation (ger): website with contributions on the history of travellers until very recent times.
  • Naschet Jenische (ger) Foundation: provides advice and care for the victims of the "Relief organisation for vagabond children" and support for those affected who wish to view their files.
  • Radgenossenschaft der Landstrasse (ger): umbrella organisation of the Yeniche people in Switzerland.
  • National Research Program 51 "Integration and Exclusion" (ger): the history of the Yeniche, Sinti and Roma in Switzerland in various research projects on the subject of "The Construction of Identity and Difference".
  • Pro Juventute Switzerland (ger): information on the history of the foundation.

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