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Ray of hope for the Yenish, Sinti and Roma

22.07.2020 – Marc Lettau

Are social attitudes changing? A law discriminating against the itinerant way of life has been rescinded. Voters have approved a controversial camping site for itinerant people. And a survey shows that the majority of Swiss are accepting of the itinerant lifestyle.

Switzerland is a cosmopolitan country full of minority languages and cultures. Yet the country’s majorities and minorities do not always coexist happily. The Yenish and Sinti minorities have first-hand experience of this. In particular, those who live an itinerant way of life suffer from prejudice. Whenever groups of non-Swiss Roma arrive in Switzerland, the mood turns sour very quickly.

However, according to a representative survey published in March by the Federal Statistical Office and the Service for Combating Racism, the Swiss seem to be more accepting of the itinerant minorities than was generally thought. Some 67 per cent of those questioned consider the itinerant lifestyle of Switzerland’s native Yenish and Sinti communities to be part of Swiss diversity, while 56 per cent believe that Switzerland should do more for persons with an itinerant way of life. Irrespective of these positive attitudes, the concerns of the itinerant Yenish and Sinti communities are no less significant than they were before. For example, the number of camping sites available to them is not increasing but declining, while proposals for new sites often fall victim to local opposition.

Yenish, Sinti and Roma who lead an itinerant way of life frequently suffer prejudice. Here: a banner directed against them in Wileroltigen. Photo: Keystone

Feelings run especially high when authorities try to create new sites for non-Swiss Roma. Many Swiss Yenish and Sinti are in favour of such sites, because they have sensed how the vitriol directed against their non-Swiss counterparts is also meant for them. In their view, everyone therefore needs to have their own space for peaceful coexistence to work.

A debacle was looming in February, shortly before the aforementioned survey was due to be published. In the canton of Berne, all the signs were that voters would emphatically reject a proposed caravan site for non-Swiss members of the itinerant community. However, a 53.5 per cent majority of Bernese voters approved the loan needed to create the site, which is situated near the farming village of Wileroltigen.

Declared a national minority by Federal Councillor Alain Berset on 15 September 2016: an important moment for the Sinti and Yenish. Photo: Adrian Moser

First this unexpected verdict at the ballot box, then the eyebrow-raising findings of the survey. Next came a landmark ruling at the end of April, when the Swiss Federal Supreme Court rescinded articles of the Police Act of the canton of Berne that discriminated against itinerant people. The passages in question made it possible to evict itinerant groups from private land very quickly and under threat of punishment without affording these parties the legal recourse to which they would normally be entitled in Switzerland. The Federal Supreme Court said that the clauses were unconstitutional. The Radgenossenschaft der Landstrasse, the umbrella organisation for Yenish and Sinti in Switzerland, called the ruling an “important step towards ensuring the protection of minorities in Switzerland”, while the Society for Threatened Peoples said that the ruling had “set a precedent in combating discriminatory legal clauses”.

Many Swiss Sinti and Yenish continue to practise traditional artisan crafts. Michel Kappeler is a Sinto who works as a knife grinder. Photo: Marc Lettau

Representatives of the Yenish, Sinti and Roma communities told “Swiss Review” that the Berne vote, the survey and the court ruling are small rays of hope – albeit with the emphasis on small. Radgenossenschaft der Landstrasse president Daniel Huber believes that there is still a long way to go before itinerant people are truly accepted. Such developments are pleasing, he says. “Nevertheless, the overall situation is far from ideal. Nothing has happened to solve the fundamental problem – not least the shortage of sites.” And things became much worse once COVID-19 arrived. “Even fewer sites were available than normal. The Yenish and Sinti have been completely overlooked since the pandemic.” Although the survey indicates that a majority are accepting of the itinerant minorities, the general public are still far from ready to welcome them with open arms. “The acceptance is grudging rather than genuine.” Indeed, any goodwill quickly evaporates once push comes to shove. For example, the Bernese electorate gave a clear thumbs up to the Wileroltigen caravan site while 91 per cent of voters in the village rejected it.

Yenish, Sinti and Roma left struggling amid the pandemic

Work dried up for many self-employed Yenish, Sinti and Roma in the wake of COVID-19, depriving them of the income they need to cover their daily living expenses. Such financial circumstances are very challenging. An aid project has now been launched with the aim of offering advice, support and financial assistance to those affected. In this broad-based venture, the “Stiftung Naschet Jenische” foundation are providing consultation and mentoring, while Caritas Zurich are distributing bridging loans to people who need them most. The Federal Office of Culture also have a hand in the project, as have one of the project initiators – the “Future for Swiss Itinerant Communities” foundation. The project is sponsored by the Swiss Solidarity foundation, who are currently raising money to help people in Switzerland hit by the pandemic. Account for donations:

Yenish, Sinti and Roma affected by the crisis can contact:

Picture: Members of Switzerland’s itinerant community who have been allowed to pitch up on a farm in Bäretswil (canton of Zurich). Photo: Danielle Liniger