Situation: foreign travelling Roma in Switzerland
In the months between March and October, a large number of foreign Roma travel to Switzerland. Although Switzerland is obliged to provide sufficient transit sites for domestic as well as travelling foreign groups, the current situation is unsatisfactory. Larger groups of foreign travelling Roma have only three transit sites available, and this leads to conflicts.
The history of the Roma in Switzerland is a story of exclusion, discrimination and persecution. For six centuries, a repressive “Gypsy policy” was practiced in Switzerland, aimed at combating this minority’s travelling way of life. Roma were persecuted, displaced and stigmatized. From 1887 to 1972, the Swiss border was even completely closed to travelling peoples from abroad.
According to estimates, there are regularly 500 to 800 – and in the peak period even up to 1500 – caravans in Switzerland during the summer months. Many of the foreign travelling Roma come here to work and have a fixed customer base in Switzerland. In addition to this, there are Roma groups who visit Switzerland because of its central location for family or religious gatherings. They come from France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Scandinavia as well as from Austria and Bulgaria.
The lack of transit sites and the tendency to make existing transit sites available exclusively to Swiss Yenish and Sinti, mean that foreign Roma groups are increasingly forced into the so-called “spontaneous stop”. This means short-term stays outside official transit sites, where they can pay to pitch their caravans, for example, on farms, the grounds of commercial enterprises or in public areas. The majority of these arrangements go smoothly. In some cases, however, conflicts arise between Roma groups, landowners, authorities and the police. Although these are isolated incidents, they are regularly picked up by the politicians and the press and are declared as “illegal occupations” by the media. The Roma themselves are not asked for their views on the matter.
The heated atmosphere leads to the impossibility of transit sites for travelling Roma, and fosters antiziganist prejudice and racism within the population. This also affects the vast majority of sedentary Roma in Switzerland who hide their Roma identity for fear of discrimination.
Objectives and activities
The project “Travelling Roma in Switzerland – Information, Mediation and Awareness” aims to significantly reduce the number of conflicts between travelling Roma groups, land owners, authorities and the police in Switzerland. By means of two mediators from the travelling Sinti and Roma community, understanding on both sides shall be increased and compromises found.
There is little knowledge about the way of life and culture of the Roma groups among the relevant authorities and the police. With a report on the situation of travelling Roma in Switzerland and a sensitization module for police and authorities, the project aims to provide expert knowledge on culture, lifestyle and needs of the foreign travelling Roma groups. The project was developed jointly by STP and the Verband Sinti und Roma Schweiz (VSRS) as a pilot project and handed over to the VSRS at the end of 2017.
- Information: preparation of a report on the culture and needs of the travelling foreign Roma in Switzerland.
- Mediation: use of a mediator from the Swiss Sinti and Roma community in conflicts between foreign travelling Roma, police and authorities.
- Sensitization/Mediation: development and implementation of an information module for travelling foreign Roma for the authorities and the police.
- Less conflicts and more understanding between foreign travelling Roma, police and landowners.
- Fewer negative media reports and improved acceptance of the travelling Roma in Switzerland.
- Creation of more transit sites.
- Reduction of racism against Roma in the population.
- Stop racial profiling: the racial profiling of Yenish, Sinti and Roma has to end.
Findings of the new report
As part of the project “Travelling Roma in Switzerland” and in cooperation with the Swiss Association of Sinti and Roma (VSRS), the STP has compiled a report that sheds light on the position and needs of travelling Roma, while also reflecting the police perspective. In addition, the report, published at the end of October 2017, is intended to provide insight into the history, culture and forms of social organisation of the Roma, while also addressing their legal situation in Switzerland. Finally, the STP sets out specific recommendations for improving the current situation.
Legal protection and the site situation
From a legal perspective, not only the Swiss, but also foreign travelling minorities, have the right to halt in Switzerland – due, for instance, to the prohibition of discrimination and the protection of minorities. For this reason, in the STP’s new report, the principles of international and constitutional law that protect travelling Roma in Switzerland are described in detail. If they hold an itinerant trade permit, they are allowed to pursue a gainful occupation in Switzerland. Most Roma who pass through Switzerland come from Western European countries and work for several months at a time in Switzerland. According to the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons between the EU and Switzerland, they should have the same rights as the Swiss with regard to entering or leaving the country, and work. However, discrimination against travelling Roma at Swiss halting sites shows that, in reality, the opposite is the case: in terms of transit sites, the situation has worsened severely for travelling Roma in recent years.
Many cantons have begun to divide their sites into areas for “Swiss travellers” and “foreign travellers”. The 2015 status report from the “Travellers and Land-Use Planning” survey states that more than half the existing transit sites are no longer open to “foreign travellers”. There are also several sites where “foreign travellers” are tolerated, but not explicitly welcome. According to a 2006 Federal Council report, an estimated ten transit sites are required for foreign travellers. Currently though, there are only four transit sites in Switzerland that are available for larger foreign groups. In Ticino and Romandy, several such sites have been closed.
The viewpoint of travelling Roma
For the report, the STP conducted 29 interviews with representatives of travelling Roma groups in Switzerland. The results of the questioning show that some of the assumptions circulating in the media and in politics with regard to travelling Roma have little to do with reality.
- The travelling Roma who journey around Switzerland move in groups of very different sizes and are flexible enough to divide themselves among various sites if adequate space is provided.
- They mainly come from Western and Northern Europe.
- Travelling Roma journey to Switzerland primarily because of their occupations. As many have a fixed customer base, they appear to occupy niches with their fields of activity and cover a certain demand in the population.
- In particular, the assumption that travelling Roma only stay in Switzerland for a short time and are “passing through”, only reflects reality to a limited extent: they often stay in Switzerland for two to three months. Therefore, it is urgently necessary to adapt and improve the infrastructure at the halting sites.
In view of the occupations of the travelling Roma, it is important that places be arranged at the transit sites where manual work can be carried out in compliance with the applicable Swiss standards. According to the interviewees’ statements, Switzerland is particularly bad in terms of the quality and quantity of available space, compared with the rest of Europe. Those surveyed also ranked Switzerland as the frontrunner when it comes to the frequency of police checks.
The viewpoint of the police
Queries were made at police stations in frequented cantons, so as to include the viewpoint of the police. Five police officers from the cantons of Thurgau, Zurich, Aargau and Bern agreed to share their experiences with the STP. The questioning showed that the imparting of knowledge about the history, culture and needs of travelling Roma apparently has to play a stronger role in police work. This would probably prevent a number of misunderstandings and conflicts. From the research and interviews, the STP gathered that, in connection with travelling Roma, the police often take on tasks that are not in their primary field of activity. For instance, most transit sites are directly managed by the police. In the event of spontaneous halting, it regularly happens that the necessary infrastructure is provided and monitored by the police.
It seems that the establishment of official halting sites is a matter of urgency, as far as the police are concerned. Their scope for negotiation with travelling Roma is drastically impaired by the lack of space. Apparently, the acute lack of space is also one of the main points of conflict between the travelling Roma groups and the police. According to the interviewed police officers, there is no evidence to support suggestions, made by politicians in particular, of increased criminality linked to travelling Roma.
In Switzerland, Roma are still subjected to structural discrimination and stigmatisation. This also affects travelling Roma groups.
Demands and recommendations for politicians, authorities and the police:
- More sites should be arranged for all travelling groups, with the necessary infrastructure for stays lasting several months.
- Spontaneous halting should still be provided for as a halting option. No further legal obstacles should be put in the way of this form of halting.
- Travelling Roma should be incorporated into planning processes for halting sites.
- Intercultural mediation between travellers and locals should be supported, extended and institutionalised.
- In future, the halting sites in Switzerland should no longer be managed by the police, but by private individuals.
- The history and culture of the Roma should be integrated into school education, so as to reduce prejudice and mistrust with regard to Roma in Switzerland.
Police, politicians, authorities and land owners
- Better coordination between land-use planning services, cantonal police authorities and land owners is necessary.
- Police training facilities should offer workshops and continuing education on the history, culture and needs of the Roma.
- Tightening of the Federal Act on Itinerant Trade with a view to revoking or refusing itinerant trade permits upon disruption of public order should be abandoned.
We thank all the institutions that support this project.