All children under 16 must attend school according to the Federal Constitution. This obligation is not always applied in a consistent way and its practical application heavily depends on the cantonal structures established for underage asylum seekers. There is no (or only very limited) school programme in the federal reception and processing centres where children (accompanied or unaccompanied) spend the first weeks of the asylum procedure. Therefore, in most cases education only begins when children are transferred to a canton.
In Switzerland, regulation of education is a cantonal competence, which implies a wide range of practices according to the canton (or even the municipality) the child is assigned to. As a result, the federal asylum centres in each region should determine with the competent cantonal authority the modalities for schooling. Thus, there are significant differences in the location, maximum age of admission, number of hours of classes per week and their content between the different centres. As a matter of example, children under 16 years of age housed in the Boudry centre attend classes inside the centre.
The diversity in terms of educational modalities is also found in the cantonal structures. In some cantons, children attend special classes for asylum seekers at their arrival (for example Solothurn), while others directly join the usual education system, mostly without knowing the language well (Basel-City). Some cantons organise special language classes for newly arrived asylum seekers (French, German or Italian according to the canton), until the children are able to join public school (Berne, Zug). In some cases, it also happens that children stay several weeks, or even months, until they can be integrated in an educational programme, depending on their canton of attribution, their municipality, their age or even their status (difficulties are more likely to arise during a dismissal or safe country procedure).
The schooling of young asylum seekers may raise some difficulties for local schools and teachers, since some of the children stay for a short and undefined period of time. Educational background and language knowledge may also be very variable from one child to another. Such issues are usually sorted out at the municipal level and may therefore be influenced by political or even personal sensitivities on the general issue of migration. Specific problems may also arise for children whose parents’ asylum application has been rejected or dismissed but who refuse to leave the country. Children have the right to continue to attend class as long as they are present in Switzerland, even though this is coming more and more under political pressure from the right-wing political parties.
Furthermore, access to primary education can be hindered by the issue of age determination. Children who are considered to be over 16 have in principle no access to compulsory education.
Apprenticeship and studies
Lack of access to further education, in the form of an apprenticeship or studies, is an important problem in the integration process of asylum applicants over 16. Although the legislation allows asylum seekers to enter education programmes, many practical and administrative impediments deter potential employers to hire asylum seekers whose procedure has not been concluded yet. As asylum procedures may last for years, it may happen that young girls and boys stay excluded from the higher education system during one of the most important periods of their life. In addition to the great difficulties that young asylum seekers face in finding an apprenticeship or to be accepted in a higher school, they can also be confronted with the problem of financing their studies as they are excluded from the public scholarship programmes. Financing of post-compulsory education for asylum seekers is therefore highly dependent on the goodwill of cantonal and municipal authorities.
Some cantons adopted specific measures to bridge the educational gap that asylum seekers between 16 and 18 face. Such non-compulsory measures are highly dependent on the communal and cantonal authorities, as well as from NGOs like Caritas, which has set up some specialised programmes for young migrants in some cantons.
The apprenticeship is the most common form of post-compulsory education in Switzerland. The apprentice learns a profession over 3 to 4 years within a company, while attending theoretical classes 2 days a week. First condition to access the apprenticeship is to get an apprenticeship contract with a company, which proves to be a difficult task even for young Swiss nationals.