Switzerland urged to improve protection of vulnerable migrants

Muižnieks visited the federal asylum centre at the Glaubenberg Pass in central Switzerland during his three-day tour in May 2017 Keystone

The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights has urged Switzerland to stop detaining migrant children arriving at Swiss international airports and to improve the protection of other vulnerable individuals such as Syrian asylum seekers. 

This content was published on October 17, 2017 minutes

In a report on Switzerland, published on TuesdayExternal link, Nils Muižnieks calls on the Swiss authorities to end its “traumatising” practice of detaining young migrant children in airport transit zones with or without their parents for up to 60 days while they await a decision on their asylum status. 

“They usually wouldn’t detain a child arriving at a land border so you shouldn’t do it at an airport either,” Muižnieks told “It’s never in the best interests of a child to be in detention.” 

The Latvian-American commissioner also expressed concern about migrant children aged 16-17 being legally held for administrative reasons in certain cantons. He insisted that all asylum facilities should be made “child and female friendly”. 

In a written replyExternal link, Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter rejected the idea that international airport transit zones were places of detention. “It’s a temporary restriction of movement based on a clear, adequate, necessary legal basis,” he said. 

Muižnieks visited Switzerland in May as part of his mandate to assess rights issues in the 47 Council of Europe member statesExternal link (see box). During his three-day visit, he met Swiss officials, including Burkhalter, as well as parliamentary commissions and non-governmental groups, and toured federal asylum centres located at the high Glaubenberg mountain pass and at Zurich airport. 

In general, Muižnieks said he was pleased with the constructive tone of the Swiss authorities during his visit. 

Enhancing the protection of migrants and asylum seekers and reinforcing the institutional and legal framework for safeguarding and promoting human rights were nonetheless the key recommendations addressed to the Swiss authorities in the 40-page report. 

The Council of Europe

Switzerland became the 17th member of the Council of Europe on May 6, 1963. The Council of Europe is distinct from the European Union. 

Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human RightsExternal link, advocates for the protection of human rights in the Council’s 47 member states and seeks to raise public awareness. 

The commissioner also issues recommendations on human rights protection and informs states of potential shortcomings. The previous human rights report on Switzerland was in 2012. 

Muižnieks plans to follow up the latest report with the Swiss authorities during the next session of the council’s parliamentary assembly in January 2018.

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Asylum law 

Muižnieks said he welcomed Switzerland’s new law on asylum, which he says should result in faster and higher-quality procedures for determining refugee status, in particular through the provision of free legal assistance from the outset. 

“It will take a long time to enter into force [2019] but everyone I met seems very pleased,” he declared. 

But he said it was urgent to review the temporary F-permit admission status accorded to many Syrian asylum seekers, which he says puts people in a precarious situation that hinders their integration. 

“I think granting temporary status for Syrians is short-sighted. Clearly the crisis in Syria and other conflict zones is going to be there for a long time, so why not acknowledge reality and give these people a long-term status so they can make a life for themselves?” 

Muižnieks said other European countries, such as Sweden, were implementing similar asylum permit rules. He recently visited the Scandinavian country and urged the authorities to “move beyond emergency mode” in its treatment of asylum seekers. 

“The pressure on the system and the number of new arrivals are much lower than a few years ago. Switzerland has the means to take this rational step and to revise the F-permit status upwards to give a more durable status so these people can reunite with their families and access work and social rights similar to refugees,” he said. 

‘Switzerland can do better’ 

The commissioner noted that human rights standards appeared to vary across Switzerland, depending on the canton. This is something the future national institution for human rights should help remedy to ensure “no canton is left behind”, he said. 

But he expressed disappointment at the institution’s proposed budget – CHF1 million ($1.03 million) – and overly academic approach, which suggested a “distinct lack of ambition from the political elite”. 

“I think Switzerland can do better,” he added. 

In reply, Burkhalter said Switzerland's commitment to human rights was deeply rooted in its history, traditions, legal framework and political system. But he acknowledged the “constant challenge” Switzerland faced in protecting fundamental freedoms and human rights in the modern age. 

“Your conclusions and recommendations deserve a close examination by the authorities and concerned parties,” he wrote. “They will be useful as part of our intention to improve our system to protect human rights, whether at the federal, cantonal or municipal levels or in government, parliament or in the courts.”  

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