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Tamil Diaspora in Switzerland

Swiss Tamils look to preserve their culture
Tamil businesses are becoming a common sight in larger cities

February 18, 2006 - 12:13 PM

Source: Swissinfo.org

Tamils first came to Switzerland in the 1980s as refugees fleeing civil war in Sri Lanka and now make up a sizeable community in the country. Although they encountered prejudices at first, Tamils are now regarded as having adapted well to their new home. But they are still not fully integrated.

In 1983 the Tamil Tigers group began fighting for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka, claiming discrimination by the majority Sinhalese. The conflict escalated and many Tamils fled abroad to Europe and North America.

An estimated 35,000 Tamils now live in Switzerland, of which ten per cent are naturalised Swiss. The ex-pat community is now one of the largest after those in Canada, Germany and Britain.

However, the arrival of Tamils in the mid-1980s was not without consequences. The authorities were forced to set up a special refugee authority in 1986 to cope with the unprecedented deluge of Tamil asylum seekers. Prejudice and xenophobia were also commonplace.

"The reception was very harsh, very aggressive, and for us it was also the first time we had been to Europe and experienced the cold snow," said Anton Ponrajah, the head of the Swiss Federation of Tamil Associations.

"For both sides it was a difficult situation."


He said that some Swiss distrusted the Tamils' motives at first. "In earlier times, when we were in the asylum centres, people thought we were taking their tax money... but later on the government allowed the refugees to work in Switzerland and this tendency changed," he told swissinfo.

The Tamil population have built up a reputation as good workers, particularly in the hotel and catering industry, which has helped integration. The community is also well organised. In some cities there are regular showings of Tamil-language films, Tamil newspapers are freely available and there are now more than 20 Hindu the main Tamil religion - temples and a string of grocery shops across the country.

Deceptive appearances

But appearances can be deceptive, warns Damaris Luethi, an ethnologist at Bern University, who has just published a study on Tamil integration in Switzerland. Luethi says that from a structural point of view, Tamils are well integrated. They know how to negotiate the education and health systems and the workplace.

But she says socially and culturally it's a different story. Contact tends to take place within the community and Sri Lankan values are still valid, especially for the first generation. "The confrontation [between their values and those of] Switzerland and the West in general is still difficult," Luethi told swissinfo.

"Even for those who have lived in Switzerland for 20 years, alcohol consumption, divorce and sex outside marriage, for example, are still very stigmatised and considered to be immoral."

Old ways

The second generation is better integrated but many still subscribe to the old ways, even if they have no intention of returning to Sri Lanka, says Luethi. This can be seen in attitudes towards marriage. Most weddings still take place between people of the same social caste despite moves in Sri Lanka to outlaw the caste-system.

"If two young people from different castes get married, they are often isolated," Luethi explained. "And even when love marriages are spoken of, they are normally between the same caste."

Unions between Tamils and Swiss are very rare. At the end of 2004, among the 18,000 married people of Sri Lankan origin, only 521 had a Swiss spouse. "These types of marriages are not well accepted," said Luethi, citing several examples of when Tamil families have cut ties with their children for marrying outside the community.

For Ponrajah, integration is still an ongoing process. "It's not a tablet that you can swallow and it will work - it will take time to understand each other. This is the basic thing for integration."

  • According to 2004 figures: more than 35,000 Sri Lankans, mostly Tamils, live in Switzerland.
  • 31,961 have residency, 2,996 are asylum seekers and 541 refugees.
  • In 2004 1,563 Sri Lankan gained Swiss citizenship.
  • 85% of Tamils living in Switzerland are Hindu, the other 15% are mostly Catholics.

Tigers in the Alps
Ramachandra Guha*
World Policy Journal, Vol. XX, No 4, Winter 2003/04

On the outskirts of the ancient Swiss town of Bern lies an open space traditionally used as an allmend, or collective pasture; acres and acres of grass set against a dramatic backdrop of rocky hills. Every year, in August, this Swiss field is colonized for a weekend by a crowd of Tamils. Some are resident in Bern, others come from Zurich and Lucerne, still others from the Netherlands, Germany, and England. But they all came, originally, from the northern districts of Sri Lanka, and many still hope one day to return there. That, the civil war in their island does not yet permit; hence this annual get-together in Bern, where four or five thousand Tamils gather to underline and affirm their spirit of community.

When I went to the Bern allmend two summers ago, the weather was wet, but the celebrations were unaffected. The food, the music, the exuberant colors that the people wore and which also adorned the shops: to collectively describe these the English word "festival" seems somewhat antiseptic. Indeed, so completely Tamil was the atmosphere that a Swiss friend who accompanied me to the allmend quietly left after half an hour. It was here that I began my encounter with a remarkable and little-known exile community. In the cities and cantons of Switzerland, I met and interviewed people of great charm yet possessed of a resolute, even chilling, commitment to their violent struggle for liberation. It is far from clear how, or whether, Sri Lanka's civil ordeal will end, but talking with these Tigers in the Alps provides a cautionary sense of the abyss that has to be bridged.

There are 45,000 Tamils in Switzerland, a number more significant than it might at first appear. For there are less than 3.5 million Tamils in Sri Lanka. And there are only about 6 million Swiss. Thus, one in every 80 Sri Lankan Tamils lives in Switzerland. Some live in isolated villages, but most in the cities of the north. In parts of Zurich and Bern one in every 20 residents is Tamil.

How did so many Tamils get so far? They came, in the first instance, fleeing the civil war in Sri Lanka. This is a conflict as bloody and brutal, and as apparently incapable of resolution, as the troubles in Palestine and in the Kashmir valley. In 20 years of war, an estimated 70,000 people have lost their lives. Perhaps five times that number have fled, seeking refuge in India, Australia, Canada, and the countries of Western Europe.

*Ramachandra Guha is a historian and columnist living in Bangalore. His books include Environmentalism: A Global History and The Picador Book of Cricket.

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