The authorities have placed strict conditions on an agreement governing the independent monitoring of forced deportations of rejected asylum seekers.
Monitors deployed by the Federation of Protestant Churches in a six-month trial period starting in July will not be allowed to go public with their reports.
The Federal Migration Office announced on Wednesday that the church federation had agreed to take on the six-month mandate, and that it would be assisted by the non-governmental Swiss Refugee Council.
Since it is a party to Europe’s Dublin accord on asylum seekers, Switzerland is obliged to introduce a monitoring system for deportation flights.
They have been controversial since a Nigerian asylum seeker died at Zurich airport in March 2010, which led to a three-month suspension of the flights.
The church body has asked former justice and police directors as well as law professors to serve as monitors.
According to the agreement, they are mandated to provide reports to the federal police and justice ministry at the end of the year.
Marie Avet from the Migration Office told swissinfo.ch that the ministry would retain “sovereignty over these reports”, meaning the authorities alone will decide what is made public and what not.
Simon Röthlisberger of the church federation defended its acquiescence on this issue.
“To build trust in this pilot phase I think it’s right that the organisation responsible for monitoring doesn’t go public with each report,” Röthlisberger told swissinfo.ch.
He added that an expert panel led by the federation - and to include representatives of other NGOs as well as government departments – would review the reports.
Both Avet and Röthlisberger said the focus of the pilot phase was to find out how best to monitor forced deportations of rejected asylum seekers. To this end, the observers are to include recommendations in their reports.
The Migration Office is expected to carry out about 25 deportation flights in the second half of this year, and the agreement foresees observers monitoring between ten and 15 of these.
It is being left up to the church federation and the observers they deploy to decide what shape and form the monitoring takes.
Avet said that in Germany, monitors are only present during the transportation of the persons to be deported from the detention centre to the airport. In Switzerland, monitors can choose to do the same or to oversee the entire process from Switzerland to the home country of the deported.
Not to question why
The church federation said it had taken on the mandate because it was in line with its commitment “to ensure the observance of human rights” and not to question the reasoning for the deportations.
It is not a role that Swiss NGOs fought over. The Migration Office first asked the Swiss Red Cross which declined. The Swiss branch of Amnesty International also said no.
According to Swiss Red Cross spokesman, Beat Wagner, the risk of damage to the Red Cross reputation was too great.
“As a member or component of the Red Cross movement we have to take into consideration how possible action of the Swiss Red Cross might influence the position and mandate of another component, for example, the [Swiss-run] International Committee of the Red Cross,” Wagner told swissinfo.ch.
In other words, the Red Cross would possibly no longer be seen as a neutral body.
“This could jeopardise the mandate or even the security of the delegation of another Red Cross organisation or the ICRC,” he added. “The Swiss Red Cross being the society of the country where the Red Cross was founded and where the ICRC has its headquarters has a particular responsibility vis a vis the movement and the ICRC.”
Instead the Swiss Protestant Church has taken on this unenviable task. Despite the limitations placed on the monitors, Röthlisberger is convinced his federation is doing the right thing.
“It would be a success for the federation if it can contribute to a de-escalation of conflict situations, and we hope our mandate has a preventive impact. We believe that deportations are carried out differently if someone else [independent monitors] accompanies the flights.”
Nigerian asylum seekers
The Swiss authorities suspended all forced deportation flights after a 29-year-old Nigerian died at Zurich airport during his repatriation in March 2010.
The flights resumed in June of the same year after an autopsy found that the man suffered from a heart condition that was nearly impossible to diagnose.
However, the first deportations of Nigerians were only restarted at the beginning of this year following a bilateral agreement reached in November between Switzerland and Nigeria.
According to the Federal Migration Office 1,969 Nigerians applied for asylum in Switzerland in 2010. More than 700 were transferred to other European states that, under the Dublin Regulation on asylum procedures, were held to be responsible for their processing.
Another 286 rejected asylum seekers returned directly to Nigeria; 165 voluntarily and 121 “involuntarily”.
The Migration Office says that Nigerians who have not committed any crimes, and have not been placed in detention centres, can apply for assistance of up to SFr6,000 to make a new start upon returning home.
Asylum figures 2010
About 25,000 people with official refugee status presently live in Switzerland.
Another 23,000 people have been granted temporary refugee status.
Last year, 15,567 people applied for asylum in Switzerland – up 2.7% on the previous year. Most requests came from migrants from Nigeria (1,969), Eritrea (1,799), Sri Lanka (939) and Serbia (910).
More than 20,000 applications were processed last year by the Swiss authorities, leaving a backlog of about 9,000.
Less than one in five requests (18%) were granted, while almost one in four (23%) applicants were given temporary status. Nearly 50% of the requests were rejected and referred the applicants to other European countries that signed up for the Dublin accord.
Figures: Federal Migration Office