Update: 26.03.2014

What is the situation of children receiving only emergency aid?

Many of the persons receiving emergency aid after their application for asylum in Switzerland has been refused are under age. Their proportion over the last few years was always around 15 per cent and rising. Affected are children who are in Switzerland with one or both parents as well as unaccompanied minors. Little is known about their conditions of living. National Councillor Barbara Schmid-Federer (CVP/Zurich) wanted to know more, and the Federal Council’s answers are disturbing.

Emergency aid is a transitional form of assistance that should only be of short duration

Persons with refused applications for asylum have for the last six years only received emergency aid instead of social assistance. For the persons affected this leads to major limitations because they only receive the absolute minimum to survive. Emergency aid is considered to be a transitional form of assistance in an emergency situation of short duration. But for persons with refused applications for asylum who cannot leave Switzerland, life with emergency aid has become daily routine. Since children are more prone to health problems, deprivation can have a stronger effect on their health. Switzerland has a general obligation of protection towards these children, because the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees them a fair standard of living.

Report describes particular cases

Living in emergency aid structures is unsuitable for children. This is the result of a report by the SBAA (Swiss Observatory for Asylum Law and Law on Aliens) which describes individual cases. The problems that arise for children are depicted as examples.

  • No adequate food: A family of four receives CHF 500 per month for food and personal hygiene. The children are not on a balanced diet and regularly eat only some bread, little butter and cheese on weekends.
  • No adequate clothing and limited access to health care: A young mother is mentioned who does not receive any cash but only clothing coupons twice a year. She can only visit a doctor in case of an emergency and with the consent of a staff member of the centre for asylum seekers.
  • High emotional stress: The report describes the feelings and problems of a 10 year-old boy, who has been living in constant fear since he was placed in an emergency aid centre, because of quarrels and police raids in the centre. He can barely sleep and can barely concentrate on learning anymore.
  • No leisure activities, no participation in social live: A mother describes the situation that her daughter could not visit the public pool once during the whole summer because they could not afford the entrance fee.

According to the SBAA, many families with children live in these structures for years. The organisation calls for a reconsideration of the effects of emergency aid structures on children and adolescents.

Minors are in emergency aid structures for 7 months on average

After the publication of the SBAA report, National Councillor Barbara Schmid-Federer asked the Federal Council to provide figures on minors in emergency aid structures and called for measures assuring that children and adolescents do not have to live off emergency aid for longer than six months. The Federal Council has now provided the figures: 2,363 children and adolescents lived in cantonal emergency aid structures in 2012. This number represents around 16 per cent of all emergency aid cases and is slightly higher than in the year before. During the whole period between 1 January 2008 and 31 December 2012 the average duration of payment of emergency aid to children and adolescents was seven months. The maximum duration was five years.

The Federal Council could give no information on the living conditions of these children and their effects on the health since empirical studies on this subject are lacking. It refers to the recommendations by the Conference of Cantonal Social Services Directors and writes that «should the health of a child be in danger, the authorities for the protection of children and adults are called to take the necessary measures for the protection of the child». In particular, the Federal Council mentions compulsory education, which also applies to children in the emergency aid system.

The Federal Council sees no need to adopt measures especially for minors who are dependent on emergency aid for longer than six months. In its answer it points out that the provision of emergency aid is generally a matter for the cantons: «The Convention on the Rights of the Child cannot be interpreted to guarantee emergency aid to children over and above what is defined in Article 12 of the Federal Constitution».

Does the emergency aid system violate human rights?

Article 12 of the Federal Constitution defines the right for minimum subsistence needs: « Persons in need and unable to provide for themselves have the right to assistance and care and to the financial means required for a decent standard of living». The Federal Supreme Court defined what kind of aid is necessary under emergency aid structures. In a precedent decision in 2005 it defined emergency aid solely as the provision of measures in an emergency situation in the sense of an interim aid, meaning the provision of food, clothing, accommodation and health care. Furthermore, emergency aid also has to assure physical integrity. But now there are growing indications that, at least for some groups of people who are exposed to emergency aid for a longer period of time, health problems increase. Human rights organisations in Switzerland campaigning for the rights of foreigners have become increasingly worried.

According to specialists from the Swiss Centre of Expertise in Human Rights (SCHR), conformity of the emergency aid system with human rights can be affirmed, but only to a very limited extent. For them, several sensitive issues exist. The authors of the baseline study on the issue of migration by the SCHR, probably the most extensive study on the topic, maintain that the emergency aid system as such does not directly violate the minimal requirements of human rights obligations entered into by Switzerland. However, it is not in conformity with international protection of human rights, because up to now Switzerland has largely ignored the recommendations (soft law) of the UN committees in the field of emergency aid.

Lack of legal equality and further sensitive issues

Over the previous years, the UN committees complained that legal equality was not guaranteed by the multilevel system of social assistance (with social assistance, limited social assistance and emergency aid) and reminded Switzerland of its commitment to provide access to a sufficient standard of living and health care. They also called for uniform measures in all cantons, since for a long time the services for persons receiving emergency aid varied strongly between different regions. There is no statistic proof that the measures adopted by the Conference of Cantonal Social Services Directors in June 2012 have had any significant effect.

With regard to the issue of minors, the SCHR sees a key problem in that persons only have access to standardised services and that individual needs are not examined. Administrative or even legal steps are necessary for a mother with a baby in order to satisfy her and her infant's most basic needs. In addition, the SCHR generally considers living conditions in collective centres or in civil protection shelters as delicate for minors, since these locations are not designed for everyday life over a longer period of time. The SCHR calls to mind that the protection of a fair standard of living (Art. 11 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) requires more than just an adequate housing (see General Comment No. 4 by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights). In the SCHR’s view the emergency aid does not fully comply with guarantees in the field of private and family live and the special protection of children (Art. 17, Art. 21 para. 1, Art. 24 para.1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). Private or family life in collective centres proves to be difficult because of the confined space and the systematic invasive controls, according to the SCHR.

Commentary

The SBAA and the SCHR have convincingly demonstrated that the emergency aid system provides merely an absolute minimum of services and is not suitable for the needs of children. Should minors be exposed to life in these structures for a longer period of time, Switzerland accepts the possible consequences of such a policy, namely that they may have long-term negative effects on these children. The system discriminates these children on purpose in order to force them to leave the country. What is forgotten is that these children and adolescents are not in Switzerland on their own choosing but are here on account of their parents. The cessation of social assistance for persons with no right to stay in the country creates pressure on the parents the effects on their children. The reduction of services to the minimum cannot be justified if this strategy of migration policy does not trigger instant departure of the families. The Confederation has to take into account that in practice a departure may be delayed by months or years. It is essential that this delicate strategy with respect to migration policy is accompanied by measures that protect the weakest from suffering from irreparable health damages.

The Federal Council’s euphemistic answer to the interpellation by National Councillor Schmid-Federer is rather surprising. In view of the current findings of human rights organisations and the SCHR such a point of view is rather incomprehensible. It is clear to Humanrights.ch that the emergency aid system is incompatible with the duties to protect which Switzerland agreed to by ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Federal Council should take these obligations seriously.

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