Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga has dismissed accusations by human rights groups of discriminatory restrictions against asylum seekers. Rules declaring certain areas off-limits in the town of Bremgarten, attracted criticism in international media.
Sommaruga said there was no formal ban for asylum seekers in a newly opened centre to use the local outdoor swimming pool or the facilities of schools.
“The basic rights, including the freedom of movement, are guaranteed for everybody,” she told journalists on Friday.
Sommaruga appealed to the local authorities and the private security company running the centre to apply common sense when handling possible measures aimed at avoiding tension between residents and asylum seekers in the newly-opened centre in the small town 20km outside Zurich.
She said conflicts could only be resolved together and in a spirit of mutual respect.
Sommaruga added the public outcry was based on misunderstandings and an information mix-up.
Mario Gattiker, head of the Federal Migration Office, said house rules for asylum seekers were reasonable, but mistakes had been made in informing the people of Bremgarten.
“I deplore that this has led to false interpretations and concerns about discrimination,” he added.
The local authorities of Bremgarten had told the residents that an agreement with the justice ministry included a wide-ranging restraining order for asylum-seekers, banning them from certain areas.
However, in fact the asylum seekers simply need explicit permission by the authorities to enter school and sports premises during weekdays, according to an accord between the Migration Office and the local authorities.
Human rights organisations in Switzerland and elsewhere as well as centre-left politicians condemned the policy as blatantly discriminatory, segregating asylum seekers from the community.
Over the past few days, Switzerland has also come in for criticism from leading media in other European countries, notably in Britain, Germany and Spain. Some of them slammed the policy as openly racist.
The justice ministry plans to house up to 5,000 asylum seekers in centres across Switzerland. The site in Bremgarten has a capacity of up to 150 people. Other facilities are due to open shortly, notably in rural central Switzerland.
Parliament last year gave the federal authorities greater powers to set up such sites, overruling cantonal and local authorities if necessary. The government aims to speed up the asylum procedure from 1,400 days to 140 days in most cases.
Opposition against asylum centres has been a regular occurrence in the recent past. In many cases local residents have voiced concerns about security and public order. Observers say the fears are exploited by rightwing and centre-right political parties.
Currently there are five so called National Reception Centres and five sites for temporary accommodation, including sites provided by the army.
At the end of last year, there were at least 50,000 people with official refugee status, as well as 22,000 registered asylum seekers in Switzerland, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
The Federal Migration Office said the number of new requests dropped over the past six months, but experts expect a noticeable increase in the second half of the year as refugees from Africa are transiting from Italy.