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Migration & Refugees

Swiss Doorways to Refugees Narrow

ZURICH, Switzerland, Jun 20 2013 (IPS) - Once more, Swiss voters have lashed out against asylum seekers, further tightening the country’s already strict asylum law. The government has meanwhile announced a radical restructuring of the asylum procedure.

Switzerland’s asylum law exists since 1981. Since then, one reform chased the other, all of them to the disadvantage of those seeking asylum in the country. The aim of the ten law revisions so far is evident: make Switzerland as unattractive as possible for poor immigrants.

On Jun. 9, 78 percent of Swiss voters approved new measures to keep asylum seekers out. Switzerland had been so far the only country in Europe to allow asylum seekers to apply at Swiss embassies. Now, Swiss voters have closed that unique door.

The facility had offered a safe path to exile, especially for endangered women and children who could avoid dangerous trips and people smugglers.

The government says the provision attracted too many requests, leading to a huge administrative effort. In 2012 Switzerland registered 7,667 such applications. Since 2006, Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga has said, only 11 percent of these asylum seekers were allowed to travel to Switzerland, and 40 percent of these were finally granted asylum.

Since 2005, thousands of Eritrean refugees have found a way to Switzerland. In 2012, they filed 15.4 percent of all asylum requests. Many young, male Eritreans fled the dictatorship of Isaias Afewerki and compulsory, sometimes infinite military or state service. About two-thirds of them were granted asylum for being conscientious objectors. Now that will no longer be a sufficient reason for asylum.

“Sommaruga plans to accelerate only unpromising, baseless asylum requests for one sole purpose: deterrence.”

Swiss voters have also paved the way for a major restructuring of the asylum process. As Swiss cantons struggle to accommodate asylum seekers, the state has demanded extra powers to provide accommodation in its own infrastructure such as unused military bunkers. The government can now use its infrastructure as asylum centres for three years without the approval of the concerned cantons and communities.

On Jun. 14 Sommaruga laid out the details of her restructuring project. Its main aim is the acceleration of the asylum procedure. Under the new procedure, 60 percent of all asylum requests should be conclusively dealt with within 140 days, the remaining 40 percent within a year.

The Swiss Justice Minister intends now to centralise the system that’s now scattered all over the country. Transporting asylum seekers from cantonal accommodations to the federal interrogation bureaus and back has been costing money and time.

Taking the Netherlands as an example, Sommaruga’s vision is to build a small number of big asylum centres, where all concerned administrative actors are present. Also, 60 percent of asylum seekers would be hosted by the government and only 40 percent by the 26 cantons. For that, the government needs to create at least 3,000 more accommodation places.

The Justice Ministry will carry out a two-year test phase at a centre in Zurich, starting 2014. “It makes sense to probe the new procedures in practice and collect experiences, before it is introduced comprehensively,” Sommaruga said at a press conference earlier on Mar. 25.

The details of the test system aren’t entirely clear yet, but it is being ensured that no more than 300 asylum seekers stay in a centre. The centres are likely to consist of detention cells to facilitate direct deportation of those denied asylum.

Human rights groups are watching the ministry’s efforts closely, and with concern. They agree on a need to accelerate procedures. “However, the Justice Minister’s project will mainly speed up Dublin cases and asylum requests with potentially low chances,” Moreno Casasola, secretary general of the refugee rights organisation ‘Solidarité sans frontières’ tells IPS. The ‘Dublin cases’ are asylum-seekers who can be sent back to the first European country where they were registered, under an EU agreement reached earlier in Dublin.

Casasola thinks that speeding up is needed for those asylum seekers who have a good chance of being granted asylum. Such asylum requests are often suspended for months or even years. “If the government wants more efficiency, it should simply decide upon these requests instead of leaving them in the drawer.”

In Casasola’s view, the government doesn’t want positive asylum decisions because it fears a pull effect that may attract even more immigrants. “Sommaruga plans to accelerate only unpromising, baseless asylum requests for one sole purpose: deterrence.”

Along with the accelerated procedure, the Swiss Justice Minister plans to offer asylum seekers free legal advice and representation.

“In principle, that’s a good idea,” Melanie Aebli, secretary general of the ‘Democratic Lawyers Switzerland’ (DJS) tells IPS. But Aebli fears that the government will place the legal advice office in the new centres “probably right besides the bureau for return advice.”

DJS and other refugee rights groups want the legal support promised to asylum seekers to be situated far from the asylum centres, and be identifiable as clearly independent. Aebli says the accelerated procedure will put a lot of pressure on the asylum seekers, because they will hardly be given enough time to collect evidence to present their case and to organise themselves.

Further, the government plans to cut the appeal period for original asylum decisions. “Already 30 days meant a lot of stress for legal representation, cutting it to ten days is highly problematic as there’s hardly time to work out a substantial appeal,” says Aebli.

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