It’s something many Swiss people would rather forget.
Over a period of decades and until as recently as the 1980s, tens of thousands of Swiss children were forcibly removed from their families and forced to work as cheap labour.
Many of those Verdingkinder or ‘contract children’ came from so-called problem families. They were born to unmarried mothers, or alcoholic fathers, or they belonged to Switzerland’s traditionally nomadic Yenish population. Others, meanwhile, were orphans or had sick parents who were no longer able to care for them.
Many ended up on farms, and while some were treated well in their new homes, a huge number were viewed as little more than cheap labour in a country that was far from being the financial powerhouse it is now.
There were cases of sexual and physical abuse, while forced sterilization was also carried out. On top of that children in this group were used as unofficial guinea pigs in medical trials.
This abuse has left a legacy of psychological scarring among the survivors of a program which Swiss authorities once claimed was conducted in the best interests of the children involved.
In 2013, the Swiss government formally apologized for the scheme. A year later, a citizen’s initiative headed up by Swiss businessman Guido Fluri called for a compensation fund of 500 million Swiss francs to be made available to the victims of the scheme. A total of 110,000 signatures were collected.
That initiative also called for a scholarly review of the program to be carried out.
Now the Swiss lower house has ended two days of intense discussion by backing the move for compensation with a counter proposal to the popular initiative, calling for a lower sum of 300 million francs to be available.
That equates to around 25,000 francs for each of the estimated 12–15,000 living victims.
The Swiss parliament’s proposal would also pave the way for a research programme into the contract children scheme and allow victims to access official files.
Backers of the citizen’s initiative have cautiously welcomed the parliament’s counter proposal while national daily newspaper the NZZ reacted by saying that while the plans were not “flawless” and that it was impossible to put a financial value on suffering, it was important to find a “practical solution” to deal with this “dark chapter” in Swiss history.