Spain, Portugal: Emigrants Hope To Find Land Of Plenty In Switzerland


By Stefania Summermatter

The economic and socio-economic crisis has led to thousands of Spanish and Portuguese coming to Switzerland in search of a new life.

In Spain, one in two young people is jobless and, for the first time since 1990, the number of people emigrating in 2011 is higher than those immigrating.

After an economic boom at the beginning of the century, Spain and Portugal slid into a deep crisis in 2008 which has seen unemployment rise to 22.9 per cent and 14 per cent respectively.

But unable to find a job or somewhere to stay in Switzerland, the dream can often turn into a nightmare.

“I needed a year to make up my mind and then, from one day to the next, I told myself: that’s enough, I’ll take the car and go to Switzerland. I left with my partner at the end of September for Zermatt. We didn’t have a job or somewhere to sleep, but we thought we’d get a job in one of the region’s hotels. It was all a bit crazy, a bit naive.”

“There wasn’t any work and a cheap hotel cost SFr60 ($66) a night, which for us Spanish is really a lot. On the first day I cried when I went into a fast food restaurant, it was so expensive. We stayed for two weeks and then we went to a friend’s in Bern. And we stayed there,” said Angela*, 39 years old. met her in a café in Bern. A positive woman, Angela had a house in Valencia, a daughter at university and some savings in the bank.

“Some people emigrate out of desperation, because they are unemployed and are in deep water. It was different for me – I had a job, it perhaps didn’t pay very well, but it was still a safety net.”

So why did she decide to leave? “Because I could no longer see any future for me in Spain, with an economic and socio-political crisis that is eating us up like a cancer. I wanted to try living in a country that has a real democracy and proper working conditions – whatever the cost. Now I’m working as a waitress in a Spanish restaurant.”

Not alone

Like Angela, thousands of others from southern Europe fled the crisis for abroad, some heading for Germany, Britain or the Netherlands, others choosing Latin America or the former Portuguese colonies in Africa.

Switzerland is also a popular destination: at the end of December 2011 there were 224,171 Portuguese citizens in the country, 11,000 more than the year before, and 66,011 Spaniards (+1,848).

According to José Raimundo Insua, secretary of the Council for Spanish Residents for Bern-Basel, the new arrivals can be divided into three categories: “highly qualified young people, people who have already experienced Switzerland or who have a big network of contacts, and those who just turn up, often with a stereotypical view of Switzerland”.

The statistics only partly reflect what is going on. “There are people who arrive in Switzerland with no work contract and therefore don’t even register with the authorities,” explained Antonio Da Cunha, president of the Federation of Portuguese Associations in Switzerland and geography professor at Lausanne University.

In Portugal, living on €500 (SFr603) a month – little more than the legal minimum – has become impossible in a country where prices are rising and job security is weakening.

“They stay as tourists [in Switzerland] for the first three months, sleeping with friends, in homeless shelters and even in their cars,” Da Cunha said. “The situation is really problematic.”

Sleeping in cars

This happened to Portuguese workers Laura* and Alexander*. “Last year the factory where we worked went bankrupt and we found ourselves jobless and with a mortgage to pay. Lots of people said Switzerland was a safe bet, with a big Portuguese community and easy work opportunities.”

Within a few days, the couple had packed up their belongings, put what they could into their car and had crossed the border. “We arrived in Bern on Friday evening. It was July, and it was hot. We didn’t know where to go, so we slept in our car. We stayed there for three days until we could stay with some acquaintances,” Laura said.

Some companies still offer accommodation to seasonal workers, but not everyone is so lucky. “Some people have had to be sent to hostels in the city, but beds are limited. These are normally meant for the homeless and not for European emigrants,” said Sonia Lopez, social assistant at the Spanish Catholic Mission in Bern.

Considering the future

Giovanna, 21 and a qualified teacher from Spain, is staying temporarily in Switzerland. “My partner has lived here for seven years. I came to be with him, but also to find work in a primary school,” she told at the Asturian Centre in Bern.

“I had been thinking of leaving for a long time, but without a good work contract and some knowledge of German, it’s too difficult,” she said.

A first experience in the country working for a cleaning agency wasn’t a happy one. “I was exhausted and sad by the evening. I felt I had let my parents down, who have worked hard to pay my studies.”

She returned to Spain to work out her future plans and it’s “what I am trying to do now”.

“Emigrating is a bit like dying,” Giovanna said. “But when your own country no longer seems an credible alternative, you have to leave. Only time will tell whether it will be permanent or temporary.”

*Not her/his real name

(Adapted from Italian by Isobel Leybold-Johnson)


swissinfo is an enterprise of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC). Its role is to inform Swiss living abroad about events in their homeland and to raise awareness of Switzerland in other countries. swissinfo achieves this through its nine-language internet news and information platform.

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