Swiss cabinet minister Ueli Maurer has defended the work of Swiss border guards at the southern frontier with Italy, who have been criticised for turning away large numbers of migrants.
Maurer, whose department is responsible for the border guards, said asylum seekers trying to transit Switzerland were being returned to Italy in accordance with the law.
“Everything is being done correctly,” said Maurer in an interview published in several Swiss-German newspapers on Thursday. Switzerland’s border with Italy has become a flashpoint in Europe’s migrant crisis. There has been a build-up of people on Italy’s frontier since Swiss border guards started clamping down on crossings by migrants in mid-July.
In the first seven months of 2016, Switzerland turned back more than 8,000 migrants to Italy from Ticino. Guards on the Italian border turned away 4,149 people last month, a record number, it was reported earlier this month.
Non-governmental and human rights groups like Amnesty International have called for clarifications from Switzerland over migrants' claims that they were denied a chance to speak to border authorities and that requests to seek Swiss asylum went unheeded.
Maurer rejected the idea of a clampdown.
“Many refugees do not ask for asylum but simply want to travel to Germany,” he said. "If a person has no valid papers or visa, we will not let them through. That is the law."
Around 500 migrants have been sleeping near the train station in Como, Italy, since July after the Swiss clampdown on crossings.
In a statement issued on Thursday, the Swiss customs and border guards union, Garanto, called for more transparency and support from Maurer to explain their action to the population, as well as more translators to assist their work.
The union complained that bosses at a federal level ‘don’t care’ what is going on, while in other countries there is clear information about the work of border guards.
Garanto also rejected the accusations that they have been taking an arbitrary approach to deal with the influx.
Following a recent meeting between Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter and his Italian counterpart Paolo Gentiloni, the two countries promised to step up cooperation on migration-related matters and to apply existing rules.
On Swiss Public Television, RTS, Gentiloni called for 'flexibility, cooperation and a humanitarian spirit' when handling asylum seekers at the frontier.
"This is not a bureaucratic activity. It's dealing with people, frequently many unaccompanied minors," he said.
In his interview, Maurer recalled his visit to Italy in July and a meeting with Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano in which he had reminded him that as a member of the EU Schengen passport-free zone Italy is obliged to take back rejected migrants from Switzerland who had first arrived in Italy.
"We want the people to be properly supervised and not to end up somewhere on the border,” said Maurer, who added that cooperation with Italy had improved significantly.
swissinfo.ch with agencies