Asylum policy pleases no one

Asylum seekers in Switzerland are likely to face stricter policies Keystone

The Swiss parliament has voted to tighten the asylum law following a special debate on the issue.

This content was published on May 5, 2004 - 20:28

But the revisions have pleased neither the Left nor the Right.

The new law - which still has to be approved by the Senate - will crack down on asylum seekers arriving from so-called “safe” countries and will permit cuts in development aid to countries which refuse to take back rejected asylum seekers.

Amid the stricter legislation there is one relaxation: a policy of accepting refugees on humanitarian grounds will now become law.

Mixed feelings

“The new legislation will be much harsher than what we have now,” said Hildegard Fässler, leader of the centre-left Social Democrats’ parliamentary faction.

But Fässler’s party did support the proposals, which were approved in the House of Representatives by 98 votes to 49, with 30 abstentions.

Meanwhile the rightwing Swiss People’s Party thinks the new law doesn’t go far enough.

“Overall we’re pretty disappointed,” said Caspar Baader, who heads the party’s parliamentary group. “The Left and Centre parties prevented a really meaningful tightening up of the law.”

“What we’re really unhappy about,” he continued, “is the decision to accept people on humanitarian grounds.”

This clause applies to people who have fled their countries because of war or persecution and are unable to return home, but who do not fall into the category of refugees.

These individuals will now be allowed to remain in Switzerland until the situation in their home country has improved. They will also be permitted to bring family members and to work.

The Swiss People’s Party believes large numbers of asylum seekers will try to be included in this group. When it came to the vote, many People’s Party parliamentarians abstained rather than approve this clause.

Development aid

The decision on development aid is a key element of the new legislation. Under this proposal, countries which refuse to take back rejected asylum seekers risk losing financial assistance from Switzerland.

The House of Representatives approved this by a narrow majority. However, the proposal also has to go before the Senate, where the justice minister, Christoph Blocher, hopes to establish a clearer definition of what constitutes financial aid.

“The wording at the moment - ‘development aid’ - is in my opinion too narrow,” said Blocher.

The new legislation also instructs the government to negotiate “right of return” agreements with all countries from which asylum seekers come.

Safe countries

There are further restrictions for people who have already had claims for asylum rejected by a European Union or European Free Trade Association member state.

Switzerland will no longer consider the claims of these applicants.

Refugees living in Switzerland will be expected to behave themselves. They will only be granted a work permit after five years. Permits will be withheld if they commit a crime in Switzerland or anywhere else during that time.

The first stage of the debate on asylum legislation lasted over 16 hours - a reflection of just how controversial the subject is in Switzerland.

Over 80 amendments were submitted, and there were often heated exchanges between the Left and Right.

The Green Party’s Geri Müller said he was astonished at the amount of hostility expressed towards asylum seekers.

“I’m amazed there is so much anger towards these people,” he said.

The Swiss Refugee Council also expressed outrage at the new asylum law, claiming it did not take into account the needs of the most vulnerable.

Additional amendments, mainly from the Right and aimed at further hardening asylum policy, can be expected when the proposals are debated in the Senate.

The People’s Party has warned that it will challenge the new law in a nationwide vote if the Senate fails to tighten it further.


Key Facts

Recognised refugees in Switzerland at the end of 2003: 24,729
Asylum seekers provisionally accepted: 24,467
Asylum seekers waiting for a decision: 41, 272

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