How to integrate undocumented migrants? An interview with Zurich’s Head of Integration Office

21 October 2022

Zurich has a plan: all the population must benefit equally from the city’s offers and services. And that includes migrants and refugees. The way to achieve this is by offering information in multiple languages and various formats, promoting diversity, designing and providing accessible services, and focussing on vulnerable groups.

On 16 and 17 November, Zurich will take part in the 10th Integrating Cities Conference, the world’s largest summit on migration and integration in Europe’s cities. The event will gather politicians and city experts, EU member states, European Parliament and European Commission officials, as well as NGOs, migrant groups, activists and academics. The conference is financed by the CONNECTION project, co-funded by the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund.

Integrating Cities Event
Integrating Cities Event

As a teaser for the conference – and to give you one more reason to register for it – we interviewed Christof Meier, Zurich’s Head of Integration Office. He explains how the Swiss city has been dealing with the influx of Ukrainian refugees and talks about Zurich’s innovative approach to undocumented migrants.

How is Zurich dealing with the influx of refugees from Ukraine? How is the city taking care of the refugees’ reception and fostering their integration at the local level?

The weeks after the arrival of the first refugees from Ukraine were quite special, but also chaotic. There was a lot of improvisation. Nevertheless, extraordinary situations such as late-night calls from the railway station announcing 200 more persons in need of accommodation were mastered mostly successfully

Most of the problems we faced originated from almost everything happening outside the city’s well-implemented structures. Usually, asylum seekers and refugees first go to a national centre and then reach local government-run facilities. Only at a later stage do city authorities take charge of asylum seekers and refugees.

Christof Meier
Christof Meier, Head of Integration Office at the City of Zurich

Given the fact that Ukrainians can enter Switzerland without a visa and that many private citizens offered to host them, the process became out of control. At a certain point, we knew that there were about 2,000 Ukrainian refugees in our city, but we had no other information about them; we didn’t know who they were or where they were staying.

Today things are better organised, and we are ready to host more Ukrainians, should they arrive before winter. But that doesn’t mean that there are good answers to all the important questions. One of the main issues is how refugees from Ukraine are treated differently compared to all the other asylum-seekers and refugees. Another concern is about the role of guest families.

The local population showed great solidarity; even now, the majority of Ukrainian refugees live with guest families. This model has great potential; it can be reproduced in the future to host other refugees. However, the state doesn’t know yet how to best deal with guest families hosting refugees. We shouldn’t forget that the state is always in charge.

Zurich is renowned for its work with undocumented migrants.  At the 10th Integrating Cities Conference, the city will also take part in a related workshop. What makes Zurich stand out in this area?

There is no secret – and there are a lot of things that are not exactly the way we would like them to be. What we do is quite simple and based on integration policy principles. As a city, we don’t care too much about immigration and emigration: we have the population we have. Moreover, we have some responsibilities for everyone living inside “our territory”, we have to guarantee the basic rights to all of them the best way we can. In other words, if a person without a legal status is living in our city, she or he is part of the population. That’s the starting point.

Zurich has a population of about440,000. In addition, there are an estimated 10,000 undocumented migrants who live in the city. The typical undocumented migrant in Zurich may be a woman from a Latin American country who came as a tourist and stayed. She is working illegally in a household, lives in poor conditions and is in constant fear of being stopped by the police. Of course, we are working to change the current laws and to make it easier for undocumented migrants to legalise their status. But as a city, we are very limited in what we can do.

That’s why we try to do what we can, and that is more than one may think. We give access to city services, access to education, access to health care, and access to society. In this context, we have some interesting projects and activities that we’ll present at the conference’s workshop. I will talk about them, including the idea of a Zurich city card.

How important is an event such as the Integrating Cities Conference to help shape Zurich’s migration policies?

International conferences are relevant because they offer the chance to share ideas and experiences. What happens in one city may be very different to another, but there are common challenges, and often it’s very helpful to know what is going on elsewhere. Participants have a lot of interesting takeaways, and many of them share similar ideas about cities’ future. Sometimes it just helps to know that others face similar problems. I usually come back from international conferences with at least two or three highlights that help me in my daily work back home.

With a view to international cooperation on the topic, Zurich is also part of C-MISE, the City Initiative on Migrants with Irregular Status in Europe. This is a city-led knowledge-exchange programme supporting European cities in sharing knowledge on city practices and policies to respond to the presence of migrants with irregular status in their territory. The initiative now counts over 50 cities across 18 countries, as well as Eurocities and the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) in a facilitating capacity.