Policy and Practice: An ethnography of migrant integration in Geneva, Switzerland

Shirley Yeung

“Geneva is the city of human rights.” During my research at a French language school for undocumented (or precariously residing) migrants, students often used this phrase to describe not only the city’s unique history and character, but to express their own aspirations for a good life there. While volunteering as a night-school French teacher, I followed the school’s activities over the course of its school year in order to understand how Switzerland’s recent integration law—which makes residency and citizenship conditional on social valuations of “integration”—hit the ground in the wake of Europe’s financial crisis. In particular, I wanted to know how ideas about language, culture, and difference were being enacted in language classrooms and pedagogy, and how these were implicated, outside the classroom, in the social mobility of migrants.

To be sure, Geneva’s social diversity is apparent to any observer. Mobility permeates the city. Geneva is a multilingual canton where “foreigners” (étrangers) constitute over 40% of the resident population, and where voters opposed the 2009 Swiss ban on the construction of minarets. Geneva’s industries of hospitality and its humanitarian and diplomatic institutions—their entrances flanked by fountains, monuments, and windblown flags—lend the city a cosmopolitan allure. Geneva is also a hub for global commodities trading, and is where one finds numerous private banking firms, the European headquarters of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. It was the independent Protestant republic that historically adopted John Calvin, Rousseau, and France’s Huguenot refugees during the 17th century, and is now home and host to various expatriate, migrant, and refugee communities.

I found myself equally intrigued and unsettled, however, by the idea of a place that seemed to embody a conception of universal human rights within a national context of stiffening migration legislation—where talk of “integration” seemed commonly to veil national anxieties about linguistic, religious, and racialized difference. Is Geneva a cosmopolitan oasis? For whom? And how do ideas about national language, culture, and migrant “integration” both reproduce and exist in tension with a transnationally-imagined genevois cosmopolitanism?

An SSD Summer grant was indispensable in allowing me to tackle these questions head on and push two critical writing projects to their completion. From Cultural Distance to Skills Deficits: Swiss Integration Policy, Language and the Migrant-Expat distinction is Chapter 1 of my thesis, and is currently in peer-review. In it, I examine a shift in Switzerland’s legal discourses on migration during the late 1990s. I looked at how a discourse of cultural distance—distinguishing between “culturally near” and “culturally distant” foreigners—was redirected into a discourse which emphasized the need for “skilled” foreign personnel, differentiating between highly skilled “expatriates” and low-skilled “migrants.” I situate this discursive shift within overarching political-economic processes of European harmonization, and argue for analytical attention to how categories of mobility (like “migrant” and “expat”) reproduce social hierarchies and construct differently culturalized mobile subjects vis-à-vis integration measures.

Chapter 2, also completed with SSD support, investigates ideas about language and education at a French language school serving Geneva’s undocumented population. Tasked with endowing cultural capital and French competences to a precarized migrant public, I link the school’s pedagogies to 18th century (and earlier) conceptions of the French language, Calvinist ethics, the emergence of the genevois bourgeoisie, and the international workers’ movements of the late 19th century. This last period is key: it not only saw primary education become compulsory in Geneva, but gave rise to ideas about the role of culture (culture) and knowledge (connaissances) in both self-cultivation and political mobilization which continue to inform ideas about French language instruction in Geneva and its relevance for migrant social mobility.

As I continue to write, I continue to reflect on the teachers and students that I worked with. They taught me that while the social project of “integration” has widened educational access in certain spheres, it is also troubled by everyday ironies and contradictions which re-create and deepen the very social impasses that its policies claim to overcome. These aspects of newcomer integration are all too often overlooked in public and policy domains. In a context of crisis where concerns about migration and diversity are tending to reinforce national and European bordering practices (and their attendant ideologies of unity), my hope is that an ethnographic approach will go towards rethinking dominant frameworks and nuancing our understanding of what it means to “integrate.” I thank the Social Sciences Division for their support toward this aim.

Shirley Yeung is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology.