A recent report by Switzerland’s federal migration commission looks at this question.
Between 2008 and 2017, around 180,000 asylum seekers left Switzerland, mostly because their applications failed. Around 92,000 left in a “controlled” manner, most (80%) voluntarily with no support. The remaining 20% were given money to help them leave and resettle in their home countries.
What happened to the remaining 88,000 is unclear. Some will have crossed the border unrecorded, but some will have stayed illegally in Switzerland.
Estimates of the number of asylum seekers living illegally under the radar in Switzerland range from 8,000 to 33,000.
Some in this group are able to return home but choose not to. Others are stuck, unable to obtain the documents needed to get there. This can happen when identity cannot be established or when the home country refuses to provide the required travel documents.
Some of those who remain illegally manage to find enough undocumented work to support themselves, but others end up on emergency welfare. In 2017, an estimated 8,500 asylum seekers were scraping by in shelters and soup kitchens on emergency welfare, typically 12 francs a day.
The report presents six stories of lives in limbo.
One is about a family from a former soviet country. They left fearing reprisal for their political activism. Their asylum application was rejected and they were required to leave Switzerland. However, they were unable to obtain the documents necessary to return home. They have been in Switzerland for more than 7 years. Even if they could get the travel documents they need, they fear returning to their home country.
Another is about Kalzang, a young Tibetan man who flew to Switzerland alone after his father, a religious man, was threatened. His asylum application was rejected and because he does not have travel documents he cannot return to China. He has spent 3 years living illegally in Switzerland, surviving on emergency welfare and support from charities.
Three others living in the shadows have similar stories of failed asylum applications and no way back to their home countries. The asylum process can take many years, particularly when decisions are appealed. This can make returning harder. One man from Algeria living clandestinely has spent 23 years in Switzerland.
The only hopeful story is about Amadou, a young man from Guinea who migrated to find work to repay an uncle who had paid his dying father’s hospital bill. He arrived in Switzerland after a harrowing journey via Algeria, Libya and Italy. He wanted to return home and decided to take advantage of a repatriation package that provides training, 3,000 francs to set up a business and an airfare home. He plans to open a shop selling clothes in his home town.