Study title
Intermediaries, Channels and Privileges: A Journey into the Mobility of the 'Highly Skilled' towards Switzerland
Ref study 13166
Study language English
Contributing institutions
  • Migration
  • Mobility
  • Switzerland
  • Highly Skilled
  • Migration Intermediaries
  • Migration Channels
Geographical space
  • Switzerland
This research analyses the strategies of migration intermediaries from the public and private sectors in Switzerland to select, attract, and retain highly skilled migrants who represent value to them. It reveals how state and economic actors define “wanted immigrants” and provide them with privileged access to the Swiss territory and labour market. The analysis draws on an ethnographic study conducted in the French-speaking Lake Geneva area and the German-speaking northwestern region of Switzerland between 2014 and 2018. It shows how institutional actors influence which resources are available to different groups of newcomers by defining and dividing migrants according to constructed social categories that correlate with specific status and privileges. This research thus shifts the focus from an approach that takes the category of highly skilled migrant for granted to one that regards context as crucial for structuring migrants’ characteristics, trajectories, and experiences. Beyond consideration of professional qualifications, the ways decision-makers perceive candidates and shape their resource environments are crucial for constructing them as skilled or unskilled, wanted or unwanted, welcome or unwelcome.
At a time when researchers, policymakers and corporate actors are increasingly regarding highly skilled migrants from the perspective of their potential benefits for the host societies, I argue that this category is far from obvious and raises many difficulties. My research widens the perspective by showing how highly skilled migrants are perceived and defined by various actors in different places and at different times. This enabled me to shift the focus from an approach that takes the category of highly skilled migrant for granted to one that regards contexts as being crucial for structuring migrants’ characteristics, trajectories and experience, and for informing our perception of them as skilled or unskilled, wanted or unwanted, welcome or unwelcome. I defend the argument that definitions of highly skilled migrants depend more on the way interest groups view potential migrants than on migrants’ characteristics.

I started my analysis by focusing on Swiss admission processes in order to analyse the way in which various objectives and practices influence the selection of labour immigrants. I showed that the dual admission system – which makes a clear distinction between EU/EFTA and third-country nationals – constitutes a compromise between opposing political tendencies towards openness and closure. It aims at communicating an impression of control over immigration, while keeping enough flexibility to adapt to particular situations. Moreover, this system relies on an unclear definition of “highly skilled migrants” as economically profitable, socially independent and culturally close individuals. Nevertheless, admission relies in practice on factors that have little to do with the actual characteristics of immigrants. The support that some candidates receive from their employer and experts in the field of admission processes, as well as the authorities’ perception of the economic interest of the admission situation, are much more crucial for defining a candidate’s value in this process.

I then turned to place branding strategies in order to observe how local administrations and related actors define valuable immigrants. Here again, categories are often fuzzy. While local administrations in charge of integration informally differentiate between “highly qualified expats” and “less privileged immigrants”, they do not want to show favouritism towards already privileged groups. At the same time, actors in charge of economic promotion develop strategies to foster their region’s development. To this aim, they create services that directly target the most profitable companies, and sometimes address the immigrants who move within the context of such companies. In this way, some immigrants benefit from special treatment due to their employer’s status. In parallel, some individuals mobilise themselves in order to ask for more support and recognition from the state and for better possibilities to participate in the local life. By defining themselves as expats, they insist on their specificity with regard to other immigrants. Although their main goal is to raise awareness about the difficulties that some people encounter when moving to Switzerland, their claims also challenge classical perceptions of belonging, since they substitute nationality with social contribution as a legitimate factor for defining state duties towards them. Moreover, they insist on cultural capital instead of economic profitability as means to define their value.

My fourth chapter focused on mobility within the framework of internationalised companies. I showed that in this case again, employers mainly define “highly skilled migrants” based on their ability to fit into specific situations and to fulfil perceived needs. Their selection, attraction and retention rely on mobility infrastructure composed of intermediaries that facilitate access for companies to those workers that may be immediately efficient. However, the intermediaries also contribute to creating new norms and constraints for employees. By facilitating mobility, they trivialise it. Hence mobility in some sectors ceases to be a career choice and becomes a condition for reaching higher professional positions. Moreover, individuals rather than institutions become responsible for assuming the difficulties associated with frequent mobility. If some privileged employees still benefit from complete relocation packages, many more have to contend with minimal support. Personal resources thus become central in cases where individuals receive no support from their employer.

I concluded my analysis by identifying obstacles and opportunities associated with different migration channels towards Switzerland. In the first section I used data from the NCCR On the Move Migration-Mobility survey to analyse the kind of support that recently arrived immigrants from certain countries receive when relocating to Switzerland. I highlighted the central role of employers in attracting people, as well as the influence of admission policies on migration trajectories. I also revealed important differences between immigrants based on their qualification level, nationality, gender and professional sector. In the next section, I qualitatively analysed the experiences of individuals moving through different migration channels. In particular, I highlighted enabling and disabling factors associated with the company-oriented channel, the family-oriented channel, the study-oriented channel and the protection-oriented channel. Here again, I showed that the legal framework regulating each channel, as well as the kind of support structures available to immigrants in these channels, create different resource environments with specific obstacles and opportunities. Yet, I also showed that individuals are not held captive to these environments: they develop strategies to improve their situation, which sometimes involve navigating between channels in order to access new opportunities. Understanding the interplay between structure and agency is thus central to developing a comprehensive view of social mechanisms related to migration and mobility.
Methods (description)
My research approach is mainly ethnographic. I combine different methods and data sources (interviews, observations, documents, survey, statistics) to enlarge my understanding of specific situations and to contrast them with my personal experiences. I also use a multi-sited approach in order to grasp the relationships between actors situated in different locations.
Methods (instruments)
Replicated study No
  • Hercog, Metka; Sandoz, Laure. 2018. Selecting the highly skilled: norms and practices of the Swiss admission system for non-EU immigrants. Migration Letters 15 (4). Online: 10.33182/ml.v15i4.2
  • Sandoz, Laure. 2018. Understanding access to the labour market through migration channels. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (Published online: 24 Jul 2018):1-20. Online: 10.1080/1369183X.2018.1502657
  • Hercog, Metka; Sandoz, Laure. 2018. Highly Skilled or Highly Wanted Migrants? Conceptualizations, Policy Designs and Implementations of High-skilled Migration Policies. Migration Letters 15 (4). Online: 10.33182/ml.v15i4.534
  • Oberlé, Helene; Sandoz, Laure; Sontag, Katrin. 2017. Mobilität – der Weg zum Erfolg? Eine öffentliche Veranstaltung der Wissenschaftsvermittlung als paraethnografisches Experiment. Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde, 113(1), 75-88. Online:
  • Sandoz, Laure. 2016. The Symbolic Value of Quotas in the Swiss Immigration System. Highlights, E-Magazine of the Nccr – on the Move 1: 40–45. Online:
  • Sandoz, Laure. 2016. “Si Tu Perds Ton Travail, C’est Fini”. Terra Cognita 29: 103–103. Online:
  • Sandoz, Laure; Santi, Fabian. 2019. Who Receives More Help? The Role of Employer Support in Migration Processes. In: Steiner I., Wanner P. (eds) Migrants and Expats: The Swiss Migration and Mobility Nexus. IMISCOE Research Series. Springer, Cham. Online: 10.1007/978-3-030-05671-1_3
  • Sandoz, Laure. 2019. Les expatriés et autres élus de la mobilité: l’organisation de la mobilité. In: Dunand, J.-P., Mahon, P. & Witzig, A. (eds), La révolution 4.0 au travail: Une approche multidisciplinaire. Schulthess Verlag, Zurich.
  • Sandoz, Laure. 2019. Mobilities of the Highly Skilled towards Switzerland: The Role of Intermediaries in Defining “Wanted Immigrants”. IMISCOE Research Series. Springer, Cham. Online: 10.1007/978-3-030-21122-6
Unpublished documents
  • Sandoz, Laure. 2018. Intermediaries, Channels and Privileges: A Journey into the Mobility of the 'Highly Skilled' towards Switzerland. Unpublished PhD thesis, Institute of Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology, University of Basel.
Financed by
Ethical approval No
Study type
Data availability
Source (Updates) Web
Date created 06.11.2019
Date modified 10.01.2020
Start - End date 01.10.2014 - 25.05.2018