The neighbouring towns of Nidau and Biel/Bienne agreed last year to accept 50 caravans from the Swiss travellers’ group known as the Yéniche. It was a temporary arrangement and a reminder that no long-term solution has been found to accommodate this persecuted group, most of whom are Swiss citizens. When some 70 caravans arrived in Nidau, at the extreme end of Lake Bienne, in late April 2014, they were turned away. Following several meetings between cantonal officials and Yéniche representatives, an agreement was reached by the two municipalities to allow them to use the grounds of the former site of Expo.02 until more permanent locations are found.
Amnesty International (AI) has pressured Swiss authorities to find fixed places for both Yéniche and Roma communities, noting that Switzerland has failed to honour a 2003 court ruling that all travellers be provided with places to live that respect their cultures. AI is also calling for an independent investigation into a police crackdown on the Yéniche who went to Bern in late April 2014 demanding a place to stay. “It was a perfectly peaceful demonstration yet the police detained 100 Yéniche in a school gym for several hours,” said Denise Graf of AI’s Bern office. “They stamped their hands with indelible ink and used dogs to guard them.” The group is now back in Nidau awaiting a decision by cantonal authorities on where they can go. “They need places to stay,” said Graf, “otherwise they sleep in their cars”.
An estimated 35,000 Yéniche are legally registered as citizens in Switzerland, most of them in Canton Graubünden. Although Yéniche are often confused with Roma, some ethnologists believe they are descendents of the Celts. Others hypothesize that traces of Yéniche in Switzerland dating back to the 11th century connect them to groups from the Middle Ages who spoke Rotwelsch, a so-called “thieves’ argot”. This group reportedly descends from Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi merchants, beggars and bandits. Today the Yéniche represent the third-largest nomadic people in Europe, living mostly in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgian Wallonia and parts of France. Most are practising Catholics.
For nearly half a century, up until the 1970s, Switzerland had a settlement campaign for the Yéniche to combat “vagrancy”. This included a policy known as Kinder der Landstrasse (Children of the road) that forced their children to be adopted by “ordinary” Swiss citizens in an effort to eliminate Yéniche culture. Other children were put in orphanages and even prisons. Today the Yéniche are an official national minority and most have become citizens, with about 5,000 remaining semi-nomadic.
Those who continue to pursue seasonal wanderings are often confused with Roma, partly because they live on the margins of society, but also because they pursue similar jobs as weavers, scrap dealers or tool grinders. The Yéniche say their language is different and that their encampments are well off the main roads, unlike the Roma who prefer to be near highways.
By Pamela Taylor
Pamela Taylor is a Geneva-based writer with a long career as a journalist for National Public Radio, Voice of America, AFP’s English Service, and others, in Central Europe, Bosnia and Kosovo
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A temporary solution for the Yéniche (Le Matin – in French)
New provisional solution for the Yéniche in the canton of Vaud (RTS – in French)