The Refugee Parliament in Bern | Photo: Ariadne Kypriadi / UNHCR
The Refugee Parliament in Bern | Photo: Ariadne Kypriadi / UNHCR

In May, the Swiss canton of Bern played host for the second time to a refugee parliament. Each year, the parliament brings together dozens of refugees from many different countries who live in Switzerland.

A group of 90 refugees and migrants from ten different countries came together from all four corners of Switzerland to meet on May 8 at the town hall in the western Swiss city of Bern. Together, they form the refugee parliament.

This year marked the second meeting of the parliament, which aims to allow refugees and migrants to offer recommendations on integration policy and asylum law. 

The Swiss branch of the international NGO National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI) founded the initiative via its project "Our Voices." The project founders believe that refugees know better than anyone about how to best integrate and what they might require to participate fully in Swiss society.

"They are really the experts in integration. They know what they need to offer themselves better future prospects," said Andi Geu, co-leader of NCBI, to Swiss media outlet

'Divided into working groups'

Just like in any ordinary parliament, "participants are divided into working groups and prepare propositions and suggestions which are then presented and voted on in plenary sessions," a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, which supports the initiative along with numerous other NGOs, told InfoMigrants.

In preparation for the plenary session, which opened on May 8, the refugee parliamentarians held several meetings online to discuss the work of about ten thematic committees and to narrow down their propositions.

While one group focuses on how to help disabled refugees, another might work on access to mental health services for asylum seekers. Once each proposal is presented, the president of the parliament will call on the participants to vote for or against each proposal, using red and green cards.

The UNHCR tweeted about the opening of the second session, wishing the participants every success during their discussions.

Constructive solutions from and with refugees

Ten principle recommendations have already been adopted, the majority of which came out of the 2022 session. Among them is the extension of the so called S-statute in Switzerland, which paves the way for a fast and un-bureaucratic guarantee of protection for those fleeing war.

This statute has been applied to Ukrainians, allowing a one-year residency permit to be issued, which thereafter is renewable. It circumvents the need to apply for asylum through the normal channels, making life much easier for those fleeing war in Ukraine.

Andi Geu also said that it has been his experience that the public is often surprised to discover "that these refugees have constructive things to say about what they need and that their recommendations could actually be useful."

'People would talk about us, but not with us'

The recommendations that were passed are all communicated to Swiss politicians, some of whom attend the plenary session, like Liza Mazzone from the Ecologist party, who also is a member of the Swiss upper chamber of parliament, the Conseil des États. Socialist Mustafa Atici, who is a lawmaker for the Bale-Ville canton and a member of the lower chamber of parliament, also attended the plenary.

"Up until now, people would talk about us, not with us," Nahid Haidari, a 25-year-old Afghan woman who has been living in Switzerland since 2011, told UNHCR. "Our voices were absent from the debate because political participation, including being able to vote, is all tied to whether or not you have full citizenship rights or are naturalized."

"For as long as I have been in Swizterland, I want to be able to take part in decisions which affect my future and that of my children," added Slahadin Romodan, a 34-year-old Eritrean who arrived in Switzerland with his wife and children in 2016.

Education and residency rights

In June 2021, the first meeting of the refugee parliament took place in Bern. That year, almost 75 refugees took place, discussing three main principle themes: Failed asylum seekers, education and residency permits.

Following that first session, at the beginning of 2022, the proposals discussed in 2021 were presented to the public and politicians -- as well as the Swiss administration and civil society.

In the future, organizers would like to start up refugee parliaments in each Swiss canton. The main reason for this is the fact that in Switzerland, decisions regarding the reception and integration of refugees and migrants are often decentralized, with decisions being taken at the local level.

This article was originally published in French on May 26, 2022 and translated by Emma Wallis


More articles