Update: 26.09.2006

Human rights defenders opposed the revised Swiss asylum and foreigners’ laws and will now observe its application

Swiss voters had the final say on the September 24, 2006 national vote and accepted on the tough new asylum and foreigners’ laws. Approved by the Parliament in December 2005, both laws were challenged by a coalition of centre-left political parties, humanitarian groups and churches. Around 68 per cent of voters endorsed tightened laws on asylum and immigration in Sunday's vote, according to official results. All 26 cantons were also behind the measures, which were approved last year by parliament. Turnout was above average at 48 per cent. The United Nations Refugee Agency, which had criticised the new asylum legislation, said Switzerland's laws would now be among the toughest in Europe. Some of the modifications in the new asylum law will enter into force on January 1, 2007.

Major changes

Under the revised asylum law, asylum seekers who do not present a document of identity within 48 hours of his or her arrival in Switzerland will be excluded of the procedure of asylum. Rejected asylum seekers would no longer receive social welfare payments and the maximum detention period for foreigners awaiting deportation would be raised to 24 months. The granting of admission on humanitarian grounds has been ruled out.

The revision of Switzerland's immigration law, called the Foreigners National Act, simplifies admission procedures for EU and European free trade association (Efta) citizens, but restricts residency to qualified workers from other countries and limits the migration of unqualified workers. Equally, getting a work permit will be more difficult, as well as getting permission for other family members to come to Switzerland.

Position of the Government

Justice Minister Christoph Blocher says tighter regulations are needed to preserve abuses of the asylum system and prevent social tensions. According to him, Switzerland will become less attractive for illegal immigrants, human traffickers and criminals. The Justice Minister rejected accusations that the revision of the two laws ran counter Switzerland’s humanitarian traditions: «The law is not inhumane, it continues to protect genuine refugees», he said at the assembly of the Swiss Abroad on August 19. For the head of the Federal Migration Office Eduard Gnesa, the rules are in line with basic human rights and international commitments. Cantonal authorities generally support the government’s stance.

Position of the Coalition

For the opponents, the revised laws, in particular the asylum law, is inhumane, cruel, attacks the wrong target, exacerbates the criminalisation of asylum seekers and overburdens the cantons. They are compatible neither with the International Refugee Convention, nor with the International Children’s Rights Convention. Former Interior Minister Ruth Dreifuss, heading the “Coalition of a Humanitarian Switzerland”, a group of 36 political, church, aid and human rights organisations, stated on August 21: «These laws bear the same stamp of fear and wariness of foreigners, and consider them only as people who may want to abuse the system,». She added that the legislation was not compatible with Swiss democratic values and did not solve problems: «It will just increase the number of illegal residents» and make it impossible, for the 80’000 illegal residents already employed in Switzerland to ever get resident status. The committee is especially concerned that by forcing people to present identity papers within 48 hours of filing an asylum request or be rejected, the new law does not consider the reality of a person fleeing persecution in their homeland.

According to the charity Terre des Hommes, an NGO specialised with children’s rights, both laws go against the rights of children. Indeed, most children who apply for asylum in Switzerland would be forced to go underground as a result of the tighter regulations. Note that Switzerland ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and brought it into force in 1997.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR has also voiced concern about moves to introduce a more restrictive asylum law.

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