During the summer months, foreign Roma travel through Switzerland in 500 to 800 caravans – even as many as 1500 in peak months. However, only four halting sites are available to them in this country. This is obviously insufficient and often leads to conflicts between travelling Roma groups, the police and the sedentary local majority population. One key individual when it comes to reducing such tension is Andreas Geringer, who is president of the Swiss Association of Sinti and Roma (VSRS) and also a Society for Threatened Peoples (STP) mediator. He helps to make the coexistence of travellers and locals more peaceful by mediating between Roma and the authorities.
Andreas Geringer, known as “Panscho” among the travellers, is half Sinto, half Yenish and grew up with the travellers’ culture. His mother, born Yenish, was separated from her Yenish family in the 1950s, as part of Swiss foundation Pro Juventute’s programme “Children of the Country Road”. Despite having grown up with a sedentary way of life, she later identified with her husband’s Sinti travelling culture. While travelling as a child, Panscho learnt how to sharpen knives and scissors – instead of going to school. Not until he was sixteen did he learn how to read and write, and on the recommendation of his mother, he began training to be a grocery salesman at Migros. “I then completed a chef training course and was able to supply the food at large trade fairs like Basel World and OLMA,” says Panscho. Later, he even ran a catering business and a fairground business. According to Panscho, this is how he became familiar with both travelling and sedentary lifestyles. He knows the needs of travellers, but is equally aware of the rules and views of the Swiss majority population. He is thus also frequently confronted with prejudice against travellers. “As long as it’s not evident that I’m a traveller, I get treated ‘normally’, like any Swiss person,” says Andreas Geringer. “But when I’m travelling in my caravan, I become a problem. That’s when I notice that people don’t treat me the same way. That’s when I practically get prejudged: I immediately have to show my ID, I immediately get checked to see if I am wanted for arrest and if there are any unpaid fines in my name. That’s when I really notice what a bad position I’m in as a traveller.”
Intercultural mediator for travellers in Switzerland
As an intercultural mediator, Panscho communicates between sedentary locals and travellers to help increase mutual understanding, whereby the interests of both sides are important to him. “On the one hand, travellers must observe certain rules and go through certain formal processes before they can take charge of a site, for example. On the other hand, there is still a shocking amount of ignorance, discrimination and lack of understanding in Switzerland, with regard to the needs and rights of travellers.” For instance, ethnic profiling is widespread in the police force and travellers are arbitrarily checked because of their lifestyle. “That is discrimination,” laments Panscho. In order to prevent conflict, more knowledge about the culture of travelling Roma in particular would be helpful, especially among the police and authorities. Swiss hygiene standards, for example, can be adhered to much more effectively if police officers and authorities know about Romani notions of purity. Their ability to call on a mediator with understanding for both sides can be extremely helpful. Together with the STP, Panscho advocates greater respect and recognition for travelling minorities in Switzerland and wishes “that we could also once again have the option of spontaneous stopping.”