Limbo status for migrants creates problems

In late May there were over 31,000 people registered with an ‘F’ permit Keystone

“Temporary residence” status was created to guarantee short-term protection to unsuccessful asylum seekers in Switzerland before they could be sent home. Now, however, it often lasts for decades, keeping people in a precarious situation.  

This content was published on June 29, 2015 minutes

By the beginning of June – before the summer season had even started – the number of migrants landing on the coasts of Italy and Greece had already exceeded 100,000. That is an unheard-of influx which indirectly affects Switzerland, the destination of choice of asylum seekers and the main point of access to Northern Europe.

According to estimates from the State Secretariat for Migration, by the end of this year asylum requests in Switzerland will number nearly 29,000, which is 6,000 more than in 2014. 

Refugee or temporary status?

Usually in Switzerland refugee status is granted where there is serious individual persecution by a state or unofficial groups against which a country is unable to act. Temporary residence comes in where a person is not granted asylum but repatriation is still not an option. Reasons for this may include a general climate of violence (as in Syria), risk of persecution or situations where a person has no access to necessary health care.

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The Swiss refugee system is under strain, and the cantons are being asked to show greater solidarity. In recent months, political debate on the topic has heated up again.

Not only the number of migrants is growing but also the percentage of them getting the right to stay in Switzerland – not always as recognised refugees, but as rejected asylum seekers who still need some temporary status. This may seem illogical, but it isn’t.

Whether they are fleeing civil war in Syria, the dictatorial regime in Eritrea or chaos in Somalia, asylum seekers get refugee status only if they are personally endangered – as stipulated in the Geneva Convention.

But when repatriation might put someone’s life at risk, it is not considered an allowable option under the terms of the international conventions.

Switzerland, like other European countries, grants a temporary status to ineligible asylum seekers. They get the ‘F’ permit, an increasingly used grant of temporary residence.

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Created in 1987, the ‘F’ permit was intended to give migrants short-term status while they were waiting to be repatriated.

“That was what happened in the 1990s with the Kosovars, who mostly went home once the war in the former Yugoslavia was over,” explains Etienne Piguet, professor at the University of Neuchâtel and vice-chairman of the Federal Commission on Migration. Today we are dealing with longer-lasting and more complex conflicts and a different kind of migrant.

In most cases now, people who get temporary asylum stay in Switzerland for good, but without the resources to integrate into society here, says Piguet.

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In Switzerland, unlike some other European countries, people on this temporary status do not have the same rights as refugees. Their ability to find work, though guaranteed by law, is often limited because what qualifications they have are not recognised, they have to live in a particular canton and prospective employers are wary of their provisional status.

If someone with this permit does find a job, he or she has to pay income tax of up to 10%, while other “temporarily admitted” people depend on social assistance – in many cantons they get less than the amount enjoyed by Swiss, European citizens and refugees.

“The current system keeps these people on the margins of society,” explains Denise Efionayi-Mäder, deputy director of the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies at the University of Neuchâtel.

“Current law allows an ‘F’ permit to become a residence (‘B’) permit after five years. But the criteria are tough and many cantons require financial self-sufficiency. Most of [these people] find it hard to get a job and may remain years, even decades, on temporary status.”

At the end of May there were 31,000 people in Switzerland with the ‘F’ permit. Little was known about them until the publication last December of a ground-breaking studyExternal link by Efionayi-Mäder and Didier Ruedin, sponsored by the Federal Commission on Migration.

“What struck me most was the age of these people: their average age is 20, and there are many children having to grow up in difficult conditions,” Efionayi-Mäder says.

The study found great variation in the length of time spent on an ‘F’ permit before either regularisation (grant of residence) or repatriation, but it is tending to get longer now. The average is three years, but half of the current 31,000 “temporary” residents have been in Switzerland for more than seven years, and 12% for more than 16 years.

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The unsuitability of this permit has been pointed out in several quarters, and is now back in discussion among politicians.

The conservative right Swiss People’s Party thinks temporary residence is given too easily, in particular to Eritreans and Sri Lankans, and that repatriation should be the rule.

“The ‘F’ permit should be abolished, because it is really a disguised residence permit. When someone really needs it, we provide protection, but Switzerland is too small to take in everybody. And I believe that most of them want to go back home anyway,” says Heinz Brand, who has launched an initiative in parliament to toughen asylum rules.

Encouraging the integration of these people is out of the question for Brand, who rejects the findings of the University of Neuchâtel study. “It is not work these people lack, but the willingness to work. Our social assistance is too generous and should be replaced by emergency aid.”

On the other side, Social Democrat parliamentarian Cesla Amarelle denounces what she sees as political exploitation of the temporary residence issue.

“The People’s Party talk of abuses, but it is also because of [the People’s Party] that the percentage of people with an ‘F’ permit has increased. At the last revision of the legislation in 2013, they succeeded in getting desertion deleted as grounds for asylum. Many Eritreans are thus ending up with temporary residence. They stay in Switzerland, but in conditions that are much more precarious.”

For Amarelle, it is obvious that in most cases quick repatriation is not an option, so the rights of these people should be strengthened and their situation regularised.

“Wanting to send them all back might be politically justifiable, but it is just not feasible. Not even [People’s Party strongman] Christoph Blocher managed to get into Eritrea. He only got as far as Ethiopia. And now they want to send back Eritreans to one of the worst dictatorships in the world? It’s absurd.”

In December, based on the study by the University of Neuchâtel, the Federal Commission on Migration suggested replacing temporary residence with a  “positive” protection statusExternal link, which would give the people involved more rights. After six years at most, they would be automatically eligible for a residence permit.

For Piguet, vice-chairman of the Commission, this does not mean putting refugees and people allowed in on a temporary basis at the same level. In the initial period, the requirement of repatriation should remain, he says.

This argument does not convince the People’s Party, which says such a step would make Switzerland “even more attractive”.

Piguet disagrees. “Offering a residence permit after six years is not much of an attraction, really. Studies show that it is not the conditions of admission that make a person seek asylum in one country rather than another.”

The issue will soon be back on the parliamentary agenda. The Political Institutions Committee of the House of Representatives, which is chaired by Amarelle, has asked the government to re-examineExternal link the issue of temporary residence status. The government’s response is expected before the end of the year. It will be up to the new parliament that emerges from October’s federal elections to decide which route to take. 

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