The Swiss parliament has debated controversial measures to tighten the asylum law.
The Right says the proposals should go some way towards limiting abuse of the system, but the Left argues that they are too harsh.
During this week’s special session, the House of Representatives discussed amendments to the asylum law.
The proposals, drawn up in 2002, state that asylum seekers arriving from so-called “safe” countries should be sent back to their home country to have their applications processed.
But there would be some exceptions, such as those people with relatives in Switzerland.
The government also wants to accelerate the whole asylum process, including the appeals system.
Asylum policy is set at a federal level and implemented by the cantons. The government wants to introduce incentives to encourage cantons speed up the adoption of policy changes, such as a special tax for asylum seekers who find employment.
However, the government is keen not to challenge the country’s humanitarian tradition.
For this reason it has proposed – as is the case in many European Union countries – that those fleeing war or a dangerous situation without meeting asylum requirements should not be sent back to their countries of origin but be granted asylum on humanitarian grounds.
These people should then be allowed access to the job market, and their families should also be granted the right to join them.
This proposal has led to clear divisions between Left and Right. While the rightwing Swiss People’s Party has called the move “totally wrong", the centre-left and refugee organisations have welcomed this part of the law.
“The granting of asylum for humanitarian reasons is one of the few positive aspects of the revision,” said Jürg Schertenleib from the non-governmental Swiss Refugee Council.
“If it’s not accepted, we say the revision should be rejected,” he added.
Parliamentary debate on the proposals to reform the asylum law will continue at a later date.
The government's proposals are open to amendment, and both the Right and Left are expected to put forward their suggestions.
“As a whole, we think the project doesn't go far enough,” said People’s Party parliamentarian Hans Fehr.
“We can only accept the revision if our main proposals get through,” he added.
The People’s Party would also like to see the safe country rule applied without exception.
And Fehr warned that the party would challenge any revised asylum law in a nationwide vote if it was unhappy with the end product.
In contrast, Jürg Schertenleib of the Swiss Refugee Council hopes it will be possible to improve the situation for asylum seekers.
He wants to see the right of asylum extended to people who are not persecuted by a country but by military organisations or by family members.
“Almost all European countries accept this principle,” he said. “It would be embarrassing if Switzerland remained an exception.”
Shift to the right
The latest discussions come on the back of what observers say is a gradual tightening of Switzerland’s asylum policy.
A month ago measures were introduced to stop welfare benefits for asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected.
They are being implemented by the Federal Refugee Office Office as part of a controversial government savings plan, which aims to cut public spending by SFr3.3 billion ($2.6 billion).
In November 2002 the United Nations strongly criticised a proposal by the People’s Party - put to a nationwide vote - calling for tougher asylum laws to stop abuse of the system.
The initiative sought to limit the number of applications and ban asylum seekers from working. It also called for all asylum seekers who arrive via a safe country to be sent back. It was rejected by a wafer-thin majority.
Christoph Blocher, the justice minister and leading light of the People’s Party, told a press conference in Bern last week that the present situation could not continue.
He said that proposals advocated by his predecessor, Ruth Metzler, were a step in the right direction but were not enough.
Blocher added that additional measures, such as the targeting of asylum seekers who keep their identities secret, were necessary.
swissinfo, Andrea Tognina
The final result of this revision of the asylum law will depend on the centre-right, particularly on its attitude to the granting of asylum on humanitarian grounds.
The Christian Democrats may well support a project favoured by Ruth Metzler, their former cabinet minister. The outcome may depend on how the Radical Party votes – the other centre-right party.
After the debate in the House of Representatives, the proposal is due to go to the Senate.
Number of refugees accepted into Switzerland at the end of 2003: 24,729
People provisionally accepted: 24,467
People waiting for a decision: 41,272
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