Asylum seekers face cuts in welfare payments as part of a series of measures discussed in parliament. These are aimed at reducing the number of requests for a stay in Switzerland for humanitarian reasons.
The House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to reduce payments to a basic minimum for all asylum seekers even before their applications are considered by the authorities.
The exact sums asylum seekers would receive vary from canton to canton, but emergency handouts to meet basic living standards are generally less than SFr10 ($10.50) a day, according to media reports.
An alliance of rightwing and centre-right parties also voted to restrict the right of people with official refugee status to invite family members to join them in Switzerland.
The decision came despite opposition from the centre-left and warnings by Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga that the measures went against the country’s humanitarian traditions and would not stop people from seeking a better life in Switzerland.
“Doing away with the right for family asylum will in no way help us reach our policy aims,” she said during a marathon debate.
Protecting refugees, fighting abuses of the law and speeding up the asylum procedure are the three tenets of the latest review of asylum laws, according to Sommaruga.
The debate, which was broadcast live on public television, was marked by several verbal clashes between representatives of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party and members of the centre-left Social Democrats and the Greens.
The House also voted for the creation of special centres for asylum seekers who refuse to cooperate with the Swiss authorities or who are known troublemakers. However, a bid by the rightwing for internment camps was thrown out.
Discussions continued on Thursday as a majority voted to shorten deadlines for rejected asylum seekers to lodge legal appeals but to extend the waiting period for people with temporary refugee status hoping to apply for residence permits.
The bill now returns to the Senate to consider the latest amendments.
A proposal to deny refugee status to conscientious objectors and deserters, notably from Eritrea, also passed in the House, confirming a decision by the Senate form last December.
Both chambers have voted to suspend the possibility of applying for asylum at Swiss embassies, in line with a proposal by the government.
Switzerland is apparently the only country in the world still offering this option.
Setting the tone for the first nine hours of debate in the House on Wednesday, Heinz Brand of the People's Party pointed out the perceived urgency in tightening regulations on asylum.
“We must act not only because of the increasing numbers of asylum requests, but also because of a surge in crimes committed by asylum seekers in several regions and cities of our country,” Brand argued.
Speakers on the left appealed to humanitarian principles and invoked personal experiences as refugees.
“It feels like sitting in the wrong film,” said Social Democrat Alexander Tschäppät.
“Many centrist and rightwing parliamentarians seem to believe the purpose of the asylum law is to keep asylum seekers away. But it is about giving the persecuted a minimum of protection.”
The decision to tighten the law triggered a spontaneous peaceful demonstration by several hundred people in Bern on Thursday, called by a number of organisations, churches, trades unions and parties.
They marched to the square outside parliament with placards bearing slogans such as “No person is illegal”, and making a noise with whistles and saucepans.
In the run-up to the debate, media attention focused notably on the centre-right Christian Democrats, a party traditionally close to the Catholic church and advocating family values. The party was split but a majority came out in favour of several hardline proposals to tighten the law.
Asylum issues have been a hot topic in Switzerland over the past decade. The People’s Party has been campaigning for tougher legislation, but, increasingly, centre-right parties including the Radicals and the Christian Democrats have adopted a similar policy.
In 2010, Swiss voters approved an initiative by the People’s Party to automatically expel foreign criminals, leaving no judicial discretion to judges. The authorities are grappling to implement the constitutional amendment amid threats by the rightwingers to launch another initiative.
In an effort to ease public pressure, the government has concluded a series of accords with countries to speed up the repatriation of rejected asylum seekers. On Monday, Sommaruga signed an accord with Tunisia.
Switzerland is one of some 20 European countries which signed an accord for a common asylum policy, but critics have pointed out that Italy, notably, is not doing enough to prevent asylum seekers from Northern Africa from reaching the Swiss border.
There were 22,551 asylum applications submitted in 2011 – up by about 45% on that in 2010 and the highest figure since 2002.
The Federal Migration Office said the sharp increase was largely down to the crisis in North Africa, and the opening of migration routes to Europe in March.
The top three countries from which the asylum seekers came were Eritrea (3,356), Tunisia (2,574) and Nigeria (1,895).
The number of people granted asylum was up 7.6% on 2010, at 3,711.
Asylum in context
Immigration and asylum are among the most controversial political topics in Switzerland.
The public debate has focused on accommodation for asylum seekers, crimes committed by some of them as well as difficulties repatriating rejected applicants.
While the rightwing People’s Party has been pushing for stricter asylum rules, the centre-left argues that Switzerland must not violate humanitarian principles.
Switzerland signed up to the Dublin asylum agreement in 2008 regulating the asylum proceedings among nearly 20 European states.
The federal authorities are responsible for asylum proceedings, but it is up to the country’s 26 cantonal authorities, which enjoy considerable autonomy, to implement the policy.