Dr. Ed. Gnesa: Former Head of the Federal Office for Migration

Integration works better today than it used to.

A conversation with Dr. Eduard Gnesa*, advisory board member of the Association Equilibre and former head of the Federal Office for Migration about the changes in the integration of refugees in Switzerland.

You have been dealing with the topic of migration for over 30 years. You were Director of the Federal Office for Migration, then Special Ambassador for International Migration Cooperation, and today you are still a sought-after expert on migration throughout Europe. What has changed in the years of your work? What is different today compared to when you started?

The perception of migrants, especially refugees, has changed. The Swiss people have shown great solidarity several times, especially at the time of the Balkan wars, when Switzerland took in about 200,000 refugees from the Balkan states. I remember well when the first plane landed in Kloten. On that plane were peasant women and men, doctors, professors, mechanics, all in great need. They came to Switzerland and the Swiss people took them in. It was clear: they were fleeing a terrible war, many were not politically persecuted. It then worked out quite well to integrate them, even after initial difficulties. The Swiss population became a little more sceptical when the refugees no longer came from just one area. It was not communicated well enough that a change in migration and mobility was taking place worldwide. You can see this in the asylum figures throughout Europe. After the Balkan wars, the numbers dropped, there were no more conflicts around Europe. Then came the Arab Spring in 2010/2011 and asylum applications rose again, especially in 2015/16, partly because of the Syrian conflict, climate migration, armed conflicts and unrest in the Middle East. This leads to the justified question: what value do we give to integration?

Thus, Switzerland's understanding of the issue of integration has also changed. For recognised refugees, the Confederation pays welfare for 5 years, and for provisionally admitted refugees for 7 years. The cantons' commitment to integrating refugees into the labour market has been limited, but if they fail to do so, the consequences will be felt in the years to come. Two years ago, the integration agenda of the Federal Council and the cantons heralded a decisive change. The integration allowance was increased from 6,000 to 18,000, a pre-apprenticeship for integration was introduced and some other instruments. Just last week, the Federal Council made another good decision by approving integration subsidies. If a hotelier in Zermatt would like to hire a refugee but does not know exactly what to expect, the cantons and communes now have an instrument to support the hotelier in the first months by taking over part of the salary. Most of the time, people prove themselves. This whole integration package makes a lot of sense. And what is the alternative anyway? That someone stays in the social welfare system for 50 years? That doesn't help and it fuels xenophobia. In the past, the recognised refugees were not placed by the RAV, now the Federal Council has decided that they are just as employable as all other jobseekers. That is a decisive difference from before.

Then you would say that integration works better today than it used to?

Yes, it works better, there is a greater understanding of it. Today, for example, we have job coaches who support the companies in integrating the refugees they hire. I'll tell them an example: a CEO of a big company told me that in the summer a foreman came to him and told him that his best employee was an Afghan. But when it is Ramadan and it is 37 degrees hot on the construction site in summer, he does not drink for days because it is written in the Koran. The foreman did not want to take responsibility. Then they went in search of an imam, found what they were looking for and the imam was able to tell the Afghan that he could still drink when doing heavy work. So the problem was solved. Job coaches are also useful for examples like this, to support companies with the questions that arise around the employment of refugees. There are many more such instruments today as there used to be.

Do you see the integration of refugees in Swiss companies as the biggest challenge?

Exactly. And we've gotten better at that, it's been a real success story in the last three years. But the federal government had to put money in hand, also to enable the cantons to strengthen their good measures even more. Many cantons have also adapted their structures so that several offices no longer deal with labour integration. If an employer is looking for someone for a year at short notice, he doesn't have the capacity to ask several offices. Then he wants one contact person. The cantons are on the right track.

In this case, the federal government is spending more money on labour market integration these days. Is that worth it?

It pays off enormously. One example: what I find devastating is that the media continues to spread that over 80% of refugees are dependent on welfare. That is true and it is not true. Even someone who is only 20% supported by welfare because their salary is not enough shows up in these statistics. Then the Swiss population thinks: they don't work. That is wrong. The minimum wage in the hospitality industry is about 3,400, which is not enough to support a family of four, which means that social welfare has to make up the difference. This is why investing in education and work integration of refugees is so important.

From the beginning, the Association Equilibre has focused on creating an offer for older refugees, i.e. older than 25. You have supported them in this. Why is there a shortage in this area?

There is a shortcoming because many integration measures for recognised and provisionally admitted refugees are aimed at young people. They go to Swiss school, then come, among other things, the integration pre-apprenticeship, the apprenticeships, the new training grants. Young people are the main beneficiaries of these, which is right. But it is important that offers are also made for older refugees. This will set an example for other companies. Some of the older refugees come with their families, for example when their wives and children follow their husbands to Switzerland. Here, too, integration measures are needed for the woman, because in most cases the family of recognised refugees stays here.

The current example of the JLT Company/KoKoTé is Ali Ghorbani, who has just completed the best LAP of his Swiss class after only a few years in Switzerland. How do you rate this success?

It's great. It's a very good example that shows how capable refugees are. I was lucky enough to meet Ali during my last visit to KoKoTé and it struck me immediately that he is a very lively and intelligent young person who wants to get ahead. And there are many more "Alis". I know of a project launched by a young person from Bern called Powercoders. The project trains refugees in computer science and programming and places them with Swiss companies after one year. Syrians and Afghans in particular take up the offer, and the project is successful. The two projects are similar, as Powercoders also focuses in part on older refugees with previous knowledge. Direct entry into a Swiss company would be very difficult for the refugees, but by supporting them in this way, it succeeds. It is precisely projects like KoKoTé and Powercoders that are needed.

Ali's success also has a lot to do with the commitment of the team. He was accompanied very closely and KoKoTé helped him find his own flat. What do you see as other success factors for successful integration into the labour market?

It absolutely needs - at least at the beginning - close accompaniment. Especially for people over 25. Many of them only get temporary jobs. They need good counselling. There are voices, mostly among the refugees themselves, who spread the word that it's not worth working because you can get by with social welfare. That is disastrous. They need guidance that explains to them what this means and shows them that if they integrate into the workplace, their chances of getting their own flat, for example, are much greater and their chances of getting a job are much higher if they apply again than if they are dependent on welfare. Graubünden does this well. They offer refugees support in finding housing if they can integrate into the labour market. There needs to be an incentive and also a reward if the refugees really make an effort.

Since integration has become more important, all cantons and some cities have appointed integration delegates. They share responsibility and provide support in finding work and housing.

Integration durch Berufsbildung bei der JLT Company/KoKoTé.

Integration durch Berufsbildung bei der JLT Company/KoKoTé.

The JLT Company/KoKoTé wants to be a role model for other companies to get involved in the integration of refugees. How should companies proceed if they want to get involved?

There are different approaches. Some companies appoint a person to take care of the integration of refugees in the company. They focus very strongly on language, with their own language courses. They hire several refugees for a 6-month apprenticeship, after which some of them are hired permanently or referred to other Swiss companies with a work certificate. For other smaller companies, the language is also important, but the technical expertise is almost more important. And then the most important thing for the companies is that they want a single point of contact in the canton that gives them competent advice and makes the hiring process quick and uncomplicated. This has improved in recent years, and many cantons have simplified the process. In various sectors such as construction, gastronomy and the hotel industry or the cleaning trade, more refugees are employed today than just a few years ago. I very much hope that the Corona crisis will not reverse this positive development.

You are actually retired and could enjoy the quiet life. What drives you to stay involved?

I have travelled to many countries and have seen a lot of people who are miserable. If you can help, then you should do it, not only locally but also in your own country. The topic of migration doesn't let go so quickly. Other colleagues feel the same way: Peter Arbenz, my predecessor (head of the Federal Office for Refugees from 1990), Jean-Daniel Gerber, my predecessor (head of the Federal Office for Refugees from 1997 and head of the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs SECO from 2004-2011), and I run the foundation "Reintegration in the Country of Origin", which promotes the reintegration of people living in Switzerland without a residence permit who want to return voluntarily to their countries of origin. I also advise governments and organisations that deal with migration. And in between, I go hiking on the alpine pastures and relax there very well.

Thank you very much for your commitment to the Association Equilibre and this interview. We wish you all the best for the future!

Eduard Gnesa (*1952) advises on political and legal issues as well as on questions of international cooperation, with a focus on migration policy. He looks back on an impressive professional career in various leading positions in the federal administration, including in the Federal Department of Justice and Police (FDJP) as Director of the Federal Office for Migration and in the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) as Special Ambassador for International Migration Cooperation.

Since his regular retirement in 2017, he has been working, among other things, as the Commissioner for Refugees and the Economy of the State Secretariat for Migration, is a lecturer on Swiss and international migration policy at the University of St. Gallen and a member of various international expert committees on migration and refugee issues. He is also a speaker and expert for several foundations.


All KoKoTé products

available in our online shop