Nearly 5,000 people have taken part in a demonstration in Bern against tougher Swiss asylum laws. The protest was organised by unions, political parties and human rights groups critical of “repressive tendencies” in asylum matters.
The protest came just over a week after the House of Representatives backed a series of measures including cutting social benefits to asylum seekers, restricting family asylum rights and creating special centres for “uncooperative” asylum seekers.
Saturday’s protestors marched from Bern’s train station to parliament, with a representative of the forum for the integration of migrants addressing the crowd and calling for action against their discrimination, marginalisation and exploitation.
In another address, Green parliamentarian Balthasar Glättli criticised the recent House of Representatives decisions, saying the reforms represented “pure inhumanity”.
Instead of a culture of anger or fear inside Switzerland, “there should be courage, trust and solidarity”, Glaättli said, adding that with refugees and asylum seekers accounting for 0.6 and 0.2 per cent of the population respectively, the country had room to accommodate more people.
Among the protestors was a group of 130 people without any official status in Europe and who are currently walking from Brussels to Strasbourg to raise awareness of their situation. They had crossed over the Swiss border into Basel on Thursday.
Immigration and asylum are among the most controversial political topics in Switzerland. There were 22,551 asylum applications submitted in 2011 – up by about 45 per cent on that in 2010 and the highest figure since 2002.
On June 14, the House of Representatives voted to reduce welfare payments to a basic minimum for all asylum seekers even before their applications are considered by the authorities. 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.
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. A majority backed shortening 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.
Asylum in context
Asylum is a hot topic in Switzerland. 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.
swissinfo.ch and agencies