Narrating Italian Migration to Switzerland – a Success Story?

by Ilaria Ravazzolo, GSD Correspondent

The common narrative in the media and among the Swiss population today is that the story of Italian immigrants in Switzerland is one of successful integration. They are, in fact, portrayed as the ‘good’, exemplary immigrant group which has achieved full assimilation. How much truth is behind this narrative though?

A brief history of Italian migration

Italy has a long history of emigration. Throughout history, many Italians have made their way to Switzerland, some of them to stay forever, some only for a while. In the 19th and early 20th century, Italians came to Switzerland mainly from the Northern parts. They were predominantly young men and women who stayed for a few years to gain life and work experience before starting their own family in Italy. The women would usually be employed in Swiss households as domestic help or for childcare, whereas the men typically did manual labour on farms. They were also employed to build the Gotthard-Tunnel and other large building projects. These immigrants were tolerated by the Swiss, as they did valuable work for them. Before and during WWII, when Italy was under fascist rule, many politically active and religious Italians came to Switzerland in fear of suppression and prosecution. However, many returned to their home country after the war. 

Given its neutrality, Switzerland didn’t suffer much destruction during the war and was therefore one of the most stable and prosperous countries in post-war Europe. It recovered quickly and enjoyed an economic boom throughout the 1960s up until the oil crisis in 1973. In Italy, on the other hand, WWII had brought about the destruction of a large part of the country. In the years following the war, the North was able to recover much faster than the South, as it could benefit from rapid industrialisation and the post-war economic boom. The end of WWII saw the rise of the Christian Democrats in Italy, who led the Italian government from 1946 to 1981. The country faced high levels of unemployment – there were 2 million unemployed Italians after the war – and a lack of infrastructure especially in the South, where unemployment was particularly high. Their solution: encourage Southern Italians to emigrate in order to lower the unemployment statistics. Given that Switzerland and Italy signed an agreement in 1948 to facilitate Italian immigration to Switzerland, the radio and television broadcasts encouraging emigration focused particularly on highlighting the benefits of moving to Switzerland. Consequently, the number of Italian immigrants in Switzerland rose quickly. From the mid-1950s onwards, the immigrants were predominantly from the South. By 1970, there were more than 520,000 Italians in Switzerland (which at the time had around 6.5 million inhabitants in total).

Italians who came to Switzerland during this time (1950s-1970s) mostly held seasonal permits, which means that they were allowed to be in the country – provided they had a job contract – for 9 months at a time and had to leave for at least one month every year. With these permits, they were not allowed to switch jobs during the 9 months in the country. If they lost their job, they had to return to Italy immediately. Their salaries were low and, given the temporary nature of their stay, they struggled to rent an apartment. Therefore, most of them lived in wooden barracks, especially built to house the thousands of Saisonniers as they are called in Switzerland. These barracks housed a large number of people in a small space with only very basic facilities (e.g., one shared kitchen and bathroom for 50 people). Most of these Saisonniers were young men from poor, often rural areas. They planned to work in Switzerland for a few years to support their family at home and earn enough money to build a house in their village, which they could then return to. The female Saisonniers would live in the same kind of barracks which were for women only, as the government was keen to keep genders separated. Neither the Swiss government, the employers nor the Italian Saisonniers planned for them to stay in the country for long. They were meant to do the jobs the Swiss didn’t want to do, earn comparatively good money as long as the Swiss economy was booming, and then go back to Italy.

Families were heavily discouraged and prohibited from coming along to Switzerland. Until the early 1960s, it was practically impossible for the Saisonniers to bring their wives and children with them. Italian women who had followed their husbands to Switzerland and were working with a seasonal contract weren’t allowed to have children. If they got pregnant, they had to either leave the country with the child or send the child back to Italy on its own to live with relatives or in orphanages run by nuns in Northern Italy. Every time they entered Switzerland to start a new season’s work, they had to get off the train at the border in Chiasso for a mandatory health check. This involved them standing in a line – women and men separated – and waiting for their turn to go to the doctor’s office where they had to undress for some basic health checks and a radiography. They were allowed to enter the country only if they were completely healthy. If they didn’t live in barracks, separated from their husbands, they usually shared a room with their husbands in an apartment with shared kitchen and bathroom. Typically, they were apartments with 4 rooms (one couple living in each) and a shared bathroom and kitchen. Once they met the criteria to receive the yearly permit, many couples were able to rent their own one-bedroom apartment and have a bit more privacy. They also had some more stability and were allowed to change their jobs. Eventually, they were also allowed to bring their children.

Changing environments and attitudes

In the first decades of the post-war migration wave to Switzerland, Italians were faced with a lot of hostility and discrimination from Swiss citizens. They faced much larger obstacles when trying to find an apartment to rent and most locals avoided them when they could, sometimes calling them ‘Tschingge’ – an offensive name for Italians which roughly equates to calling them pigs. The common image of Italians among the Swiss population was that they were lazy, dirty, noisy criminals (this last part was partly thanks to the strong presence of the Mafia in Italy). These stereotypes were largely untrue, however, as most Italian immigrants were hard-working and often talented at their jobs. The cultural differences meant that the usually very quiet and orderly Swiss found it difficult to handle the liveliness and community spirit of the Italians. While the Swiss government and industrialists were happy to host all this cheap labour, many Swiss workers started to worry that the large number of Italian workers would worsen their position on the labour market. In the late 1960s these insecurities reached their peak and triggered the birth of political parties and campaigns to reduce the number of foreign workers in the country. The most influential of these campaigns was the Schwarzenbach-Initiative of 1970, which wanted to reduce the number of foreigners from 17% to 10%. This meant that 300,000 immigrants – mostly Italians – would have to leave Switzerland immediately. The initiative was started by James Schwarzenbach, a parliamentarian from Zurich. After a year of emotional campaigning – on both sides – and a record voter participation the initiative was declined by 54% of Swiss voters. Nevertheless, the campaign heightened the tensions between the Swiss people and foreign workers with those who were in danger of being repatriated living under constant fear and anxiety.

Eventually, the hostility towards Italians subsided and other immigrant groups were seen as more of a threat. Today, Italians constitute by far the biggest group of immigrants in Switzerland. They can be found at every level of society and the labour market. Many people from the first generation are still living in Switzerland, where they have built not just a family, but also a home. Their children (and grandchildren) have gone to school with Swiss children and have learnt the local language. Many second- and third-generation Italians have Swiss citizenship, or at least the possibility to receive it easily should they wish to apply for it. Those from the first generation have a permanent residency permit with which they have almost all the rights of a Swiss citizen. A fair number of Italians went back to Italy at retirement but many also chose to stay in Switzerland. They have built communities and networks throughout the country and can visit Italy for holidays whenever they want to. Today, they no longer have to worry about being treated as inferior, since they are liked by the Swiss, maybe even romanticised to some extent. Nowadays when Swiss people think of Italy they think of pasta, pizza, gelato, the seaside – in short, they think of ‘la dolce vita’. Is this an indication of successful integration? Many would say so. Is integration that simple? I would be inclined to say it is not.

Defining (successful) integration 

Integration doesn’t just involve discrimination (or a lack thereof), it entails much more. It’s a process and therefore it is ongoing. Integration is dynamic and can’t be easily defined. It’s also a very personal experience. There are many defined indicators of integration: access to the labour market, proficiency in the national language, access to education, access to healthcare, etc. Many such factors have been identified by academics and policy experts. However, there are many more that we simply cannot quantify or even name because integration is an intrinsically personal process. Integration is linked to identity and a sense of belonging, which is subjective to every individual.

The narrative on Italian immigrants in Switzerland has changed drastically since the 1950s, which indicates an improvement in attitudes and (potentially) integration. However, I don’t think it can be determined to what extent the integration of Italians has been successful. Claiming that Italians are successfully integrated in Switzerland means ignoring the struggles they have faced, and, more importantly, it ignores the fact that Italians have arrived in Switzerland at many different points in time. Italian immigrants aren’t just one homogeneous category, there were many waves of migration and Italians continue to come to Switzerland today. The experiences of someone who immigrated in the 1960s are vastly different from those of someone who immigrated in 2022. Moreover, Italians have migrated to Switzerland for many different reasons. The story of Southern Italians seeking work to escape the destitution of a poverty-stricken environment is only one type of story. Many Italians chose to migrate for other reasons and every migrant made different experiences. Calling this a ‘success story’ is, in my opinion, a way of dehumanising hundreds of thousands of people by placing them all in the same category and hiding their individuality behind numbers and statistics.

I’m not arguing that Italians aren’t integrated or that none of them successfully integrated in Switzerland. I think the opposite is the case – many of them may feel integrated and welcome now. However, in my opinion, we cannot just simplify the long history of Italians in Switzerland with the word ‘success’. There are many layers to it and many nuances which call for a more specific statement that leaves room for the stories of the individuals – the human beings and their experiences. It’s not possible to tell everyone’s story (especially not in an article), but I think these stories are important. Every individual has a story and I believe we can all learn from each other’s stories, if we take the time to listen to them. I think it’s important to encourage curiosity in the Swiss population about the experiences of Italian immigrants rather than putting these stories behind us and declaring them as insignificant. The term ‘integration success’ should be challenged and we should come up with a more nuanced way to describe the rich history of these two countries. Defining integration is difficult enough as it is, so let’s stop generalising people’s experiences and start listening to their stories instead.

Header image by Erwan Hesry via

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