Desis in Europa

People marked as 'South Asians' in Switzerland

Bollywood discovered Switzerland as an exotic place for its movies in the 1990s. At least since then well-off 'Indian' tourists travel there on their trip to Europe. But the picturesque country attracts not only tourists, but also migrants from 'South Asia'. In fact, it has one of the highest proportions of 'Indians' and 'Pakistanis' per head of population in the 'European' comparison, and the absolute number of 'Tamils' is even higher. The former figures might be due to the restrictive naturalisation rules, which make it very difficult to obtain the Swiss citizenship, the latter are the signs of the major 'Tamil' residence of asylum in 'Europe' .

Like in Germany and Austria the first 'South Asians' to come to Switzerland were students and freedom fighters. Günther and Rehmer (1999, 54-55) refer to a Pro India Committee and a magazine “Pro India” which existed in Zürich in 1912. This early presence of 'Indians' in Switzerland might explain that among the 'Indians' living in the country some are older than 65 years. Most of the 'South Asians' migrants are, however, in the working age of 20 to 39 years, and increasingly there are small children below 14 years. The single largest communities are 'Sri Lankans', who are predominantly 'Tamil' Hindus .

McDowell (1996, 227) divides the 'Tamils' into two groups. The first smaller half is the immigrant population which arrived at the beginning of the civil war in Sri Lanka between 1983 and 1989. They successfully integrated in the economy, are no longer dependent on state transfers and are permanently settling in Switzerland. The second larger half is the asylum seeker population, which arrived after 1989 and is unable to integrate in the economy. They do not have a permanent permit of residence and live in the danger of deportation. The racialised and precarised population is thus carefully trying to keep its good reputation and distances itself from the asylum seekers.

According to McDowell (1996, 270-273) there are several reasons, which have made Switzerland a major 'Tamil' place of asylum. First of all, the 'Tamils' have a long history of migration. Furthermore, although before 1983 there was no 'Tamil' community in Switzerland, there were 'Tamil' students in 'Europe', who assisted the new migrants. Chain migration started with the eldest sons, whose travelling expenses were raised by the family. Once in employment they then accumulated Swiss Francs, which were enormous in comparison to incomes in Sri Lanka and could be used for funding the family. Starting with the first migrants transnational networks developed, which relatives and friends later on could use. They were complemented by the offers of both Sri Lankan based and European based agents to organise the passage. The Swiss policy, offering work permits and social assistance, further encouraged the migration to Switzerland.

Today, however, Switzerland tries to reduce the numbers of 'Tamils' in the country by introducing a deportation programme (Flück 2001).


For statistical material click here (pdf-file).

© Urmila Goel, / Europa or english / europe 2002/2013/2022