A nation that perceives itself as a superior race feels threatened: labor force has been invited and people are coming. They are not engulfing welfare; on the contrary, they are inevitable for welfare. — Max Frisch
Max Frisch wrote this in the 1960s, as Italians streamed into Switzerland to bolster the Alpine country’s economy. They would work for nine months, at which point they had to leave for three months, then return in the spring. They came alone; Switzerland at first did not allow them to bring along their families. Only their muscles were required, and additional hungry mouths were unwelcome.
This drew a stark contrast to the situation about 150 years prior. In April 1815, in Indonesia, the volcano Mount Tambora erupted and covered the world with so much ash that for two years in a row, summer barely appeared and harvests were catastrophic. In 1816 and 1817, 5,000 people died of hunger in a single Swiss canton. Facing the greater misery of starvation, women threw themselves and their children off cliffs or drowned themselves, while men went to war as mercenaries. Earning money fighting someone else’s battles had been a Swiss tradition from the Middle Ages on, and one shared by Albanians, who also were known to take up arms in foreign wars for sufficient pay or privilege.
In September 1964, right around the time Max Frisch was writing about Italians coming to Switzerland, officials in neighboring Germany calculated which guest worker would be the millionth to arrive from abroad. A previously anonymous Armando Rodrigues de Sá got off the train in Cologne and was greeted by an official delegation, which presented him with a motorcycle for the honor. The newspaper Kölnische Rundschau wrote: “This man from Portugal, during a glamorous expectation, changed his face in front of a crowd of people, as if he regretted having traveled abroad from his homeland …. The Portuguese who was welcomed as a star, after the official greeting, said, ‘The hearty welcome and the motorcycle make parting with my family easier.’” Such honor for a newcomer may seem unusual, yet savvy officials prized and sought these workers from other lands. The work of a foreigner “is a profit that cannot be measured,” declared one German government official in 1969. And with the Italian source of that profit slowing, officials were eyeing Yugoslavia and Turkey for their high potential to provide labor. During this boom, Albanians joined the migratory flow to Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
The governments in Bonn, Bern and Belgrade had agreed to work together to recruit workers from Yugoslavia, and interest was high. Migration found great appeal in the most impoverished parts of Yugoslavia, which frequently overlapped those areas inhabited by Albanians: western Macedonia, Montenegro, the Presheva Valley in southern Serbia, and Kosovo: Yugoslavia’s poorest retreat. The construction sector and other industries in the northern countries sought physical labor, and Yugoslavia was prepared to export plenty of its workers to mitigate its own poverty and social tension. So just 15 years after World War II, thousands of Albanians boarded buses and trains westward-bound on the Old Continent and toward the German world. By 1970, 25,000 Albanians were living in Switzerland as temporary workers.
How come Albanians in Switzerland numbered 200,000? How come Albanians in Germany numbered 150,000 and the same amount earned citizenship? (though, it is believed that the total number of Albanians living in Germany is 300,000) Like the Italians, rules forced them to leave their wives and children behind. But even after restrictions were lifted, many Albanians hesitated to bring along their families. They held the conviction that they would not stay for long. They wanted to earn a pile of money and then return home. It was no accident that Yugoslav communist propaganda called them “workers temporarily employed abroad.” In spite of these mindsets, “temporary” became permanence. By the mid-1970s, the temporary workers could see, along with anyone else, that the future of Yugoslavia was insecure. Even then, Albanians resisted removing their families to western Europe. Perhaps in the hope of a future Kosovo, they were reluctant to drain their homeland of Albanians. Yet, while they hesitated, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese workers took advantage of the new freedom and bring their families to Switzerland.
The Albanians held the line until the late ’80s. They regularly returned to their homelands with money and goods that represented Western luxury (color TVs, stereos and home appliances). But escalating conflict in Yugoslavia changed their calculations, and many decided to bring their families to Switzerland. “Turist Kosova” buses and trains from Fushë Kosova and Bujanovc transported thousands of families to German-speaking countries in this period. In the space of a few years between the 1980s and ’90s, about 60,000 Albanians — mostly women and children — headed for something that resembled a massive family reunion in Switzerland.
Their integration would not prove easy for two reasons. Swiss authorities believed that the recent immigrants would leave as soon as the situation in Yugoslavia calmed down, so they made few formal efforts at integration. And many Albanians also believed their stay would be temporary. They preferred to live in their isolated Kosovos within Switzerland, rejecting prolonged contact with the native Swiss.
Instead of settling down, the situation back home worsened. The revocation of Kosovo’s autonomy, the installation of repression from Gjilan to Peja and from Mitrovica to Prizren, the economic collapse, the fear of forced service in Milosevic’s Yugoslav National Army, the firings of thousands of Albanian workers, the closing of public schools for Albanians — all drove the tide of migration toward western Europe. Asylum seekers sought refuge in places where they had relatives – close or distant – Germany, Switzerland and Austria: an uncle in Geneva, a cousin in Basel, another relative in Bern, parents in Zürich or Berlin, München, Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, Vienna, Villach, Graz.
Most asylum seekers did not have permission to work, and they lived in isolated enclaves in suburbs or villages. In these dire circumstances, they formed criminal networks or drug-dealing gangs. In the early ’90s, Albanians controlled a sizeable portion of Zurich’s illegal drug market, for example. Ueli Leuenberger, a Green Party politician, union activist, and a defender of the rights of asylum seekers, was one of the greatest supporters of the Swiss Albanian community. He criticized an official policy that placed arriving Albanian youths in barracks instead of with their families, who might keep them under control. This distance from family and lack of social attention opened the door to criminality, he said.
Despite this internal friction, the connection between Kosovo and Switzerland grew so strong in the ’90s that various associations, clubs and even political parties of Kosovo operated in the alpine country. They worked not for the integration of Albanians into Swiss society, but to support activities back in Kosovo.
The advent of war in Kosovo threw the dislocated Albanian community into upheaval. Many who had only recently arrived in Switzerland now returned home to fight the war. Meanwhile, the current flowing the other direction brought more than 50,000 refugees from Kosovo in 1998 and 1999. The Swiss population showed a great sympathy for the suffering of Kosovars, and they gave assistance beyond financial aid. However, the image of Kosovar Albanians in Switzerland remained negative — due in part to intolerable behavior by a small number of Albanians, as well as to growing xenophobia. After the war, most of those 50,000 Albanians refugees returned to their homeland. The Swiss state supported the nascent country. Among other assistance, it sent some 2,000 cows to Kosovo farmers — flown in on special planes.
The next generations
Today, some 200,000 people from all the Albanian regions of the former Yugoslavia live in the Helvetic Confederation. In Germany, there are 150,000 such people, and perhaps the same number who hold German citizenship. Since the end of war, the second and third generations of Albanians in Switzerland, Germany and Austria have maintained and even strengthened their ties with Kosovo. But the bonds are not as emotional as those of their parents’ generation. More and more Albanians secure Swiss and German citizenship. That fact is evident in the increasing number of Swiss Army members of Albanian heritage. Most Kosovar Albanians live in German-speaking regions of Switzerland, and especially near the industrial centers of Zürich, Basel, Luzern, Bern, Lausanne and Geneva. While the most notable Albanians in Switzerland are the football players representing their adopted home, even more remarkable signs of integration are the multitude of Albanian doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers and qualified workers in the Swiss economy. This trained and professional force is growing, but it does not get as much attention as sundry criminals who continue to blacken the image of Switzerland’s Albanian community.
The Swiss Albanian faction cannot expect any great support from Kosovo, a young and dysfunctional country with its own slate of adversity. And even though Switzerland has blocked illegal immigration for years, the wave of emigrants continues. Diaspora boys and girls marry other girls and boys back in the mother country. And hundreds of Kosovar Albanians, hoping for a way out of poverty, continue to seek asylum in Switzerland — even though the law defines asylum as available only to those who are politically persecuted. The Swiss have tightened asylum regulations, which has meant a sharp decline in the number of Kosovars allowed in. Requests for asylum are now supposed to be resolved within 48 hours of arrival. If denied, the seekers are sent home, or they try their luck in other countries.
This has lead some to take more desperate measures. In October 2009, dozens of Kosovars were being smuggled from Serbia to Hungary across the Tisza River when their boat capsized, killing 15 young parents and children. An EU judge punished seven Albanian smugglers with a total of 66 years of prison. Yet the wave continues. Hundreds of Kosovars were reportedly being held last summer in detention centers in Hungary, arrested during their attempts to flee to western Europe. More recently, a current of Kosovars has turned toward France to seek asylum. Yet conditions there may be even more difficult. Images of Albanian families living in tents or under bridges raised a brief alarm in Kosovo before they were quickly forgotten.
It has been more than half a century since the arrival in Switzerland, Germany and Austria of the first guest workers from Kosovo. Those earliest arrivals are now older than 60, many likely retired and presented with a dilemma: return to Kosovo or stay in Switzerland? These countries have become as much a home to them as Kosovo. These former migrants take a pragmatic approach: They maintain their residency permits and health insurance even as they make frequent visits to Kosovo. But even for those whose trips to Kosovo are less frequent, their homeland has moved closer, thanks to TV channels and the Internet. They can have near-constant communication with family and friends in Kosovo.
Thinking of home
The diaspora is a persistent and significant factor for Kosovo, especially from an economic standpoint. Each year, members of the diaspora transfer more than half a billion euros to people back home. This sum is key to the survival of many Kosovo families. About 1 in 3 Kosovar families gets financial assistance from people outside the country. This money goes toward the basics: food, appliances, vehicles, agricultural equipment and medicine.
Because of the strong ties with the homeland, political involvement among the diaspora is still high. They follow events in Kosovo, the Presheva valley, Macedonia and Albania. Branches of political parties of Kosovo still operate, perhaps anachronistically, in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. These branches have little use today. Their main effect is to polarize their communities as they cling to absurd ambitions of running politics back in Kosovo.
Albanian political groups from the top of Germany to the bottom of Switzerland, meanwhile, hold monotonous gatherings and promote books and poetry of unpublishable quality. Some of the second generation has thrown off the ties to Kosovo and embraced Swiss political life. Some even now support the Swiss National Party, or SVP, which for many years ran an aggressive anti-Albanian campaign. Political observers say that Albanians in Switzerland support conservatives because their families were conservative back in Kosovo. Liberals tend to advocate for better treatment and integration of migrants. But the Albanians seem to be aligning with their traditional politics over their interests as immigrants.
Perhaps this contradiction will be eliminated with the passage of a generation. The Italian community in Switzerland provides a possible model. The Italians started out working in factories, then moved to construction, leaving behind jobs that were taken up by Albanians, Turks and Serbs. By the 1980s, the Italians had moved on from heavy labor and were opening restaurants. Their children had all but assimilated into Swiss society. But in a kind of echo of that process today, Albanians run a number of the Italian restaurants in Swiss cities. Now, their children are being integrated, if not always easily. Perhaps we can understand this if we consider the trials of the broader Albanian community: a shared experience of active and passive repression, of political oppression, of war. Their ethnic predecessors did not have such heavy and recent difficulties.
These 50 years of Albanian diaspora have been a continuation of the struggle for survival. The coming half century may present different challenges and is unlikely to bring many miracles. Those we can hope for are small miracles, the accomplishments in the context of a single life. We will see and applaud more Albanians who succeed as professionals and in public life.