Should Switzerland give financial aid to rejected asylum seekers who refuse to leave or convicted illegal immigrants to encourage them to return home voluntarily?
This issue has been in the headlines after the government proposed to increase return assistance for illegal aliens to limit controversial deportation flights. A return project in Geneva aimed at North African immigrants is also gaining wider interest.
The cabinet on Wednesday launched a consultation process to reform financial aid for asylum seekers and refugees.
Among the proposals, illegal aliens held in administrative detention, who had previously refused to be deported, could now benefit from return assistance if they declared they were willing to leave under their own steam.
Illegal immigrants or rejected asylum seekers would receive a SFr500 ($547) “travel allowance” and SFr200 to transport baggage.
According to the Federal Migration Office, this would concern some 500 people and cost a total of SFr250,000.
Under the revised decree “particularly difficult” cases could also receive a SFr2,000 “departure allowance” to help them facilitate the organisation of travel documents.
Under the normal system rejected asylum seekers who have not committed any crimes or who agree to return home may receive return assistance worth SFr1,000 plus SFr3,000 for a professional project via a charity.
Avoid special flights
Officials said the new proposal would help speed up deportation procedures and avoid costly special forced deportation flights or police-escorted charter flights.
“On the one hand we want to do everything possible to avoid forced deportations via special flights, which are nerve-racking for failed asylum seekers and for the police who escort them,” explained Migration Office spokesman Michael Glauser.
The other aim is to reduce administrative detention stays, which can cost between SFr150-300 a day, depending on the canton, he told swissinfo.ch.
Every year thousands of illegal aliens, for the most part clandestine immigrants and asylum seekers, are held at one of 28 detention centres in Switzerland prior to being expelled from the country.
In 2011 9,641 asylum seekers were repatriated by plane, of whom 165 “involuntarily” on special forced deportation flights. Each special flight costs between SFr15,000-23,000 per person, or an annual cost of SFr1.9 million.
“Flexible and pragmatic”
The new proposal has sparked criticism in some political circles.
“Everyone will want to benefit from the highest possible departure allowance and will reject deportation until the state’s wallet is wide open,” rightwing People’s Party’s vice president Yvan Perrin told Le Temps newspaper.
There are concerns that bigger return allowances may also have a pull-effect on foreign migrants.
But Beat Meiner, secretary general of the Swiss Council for Refugees, welcomed the proposal, which he described as a “flexible and pragmatic” solution to a difficult issue.
“Switzerland can save a lot of money and asylum seekers can get a new chance back in their home country and avoid being deported by force,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“We know that people who come here get into debt as they have to ask for help from their family and friends. Switzerland needs to give them some money to encourage them to make the step back home.”
Geneva’s “Project Maghreb”
The national changes come as “Project Maghreb”, a special return initiative launched last August in canton Geneva, starts to gain wider interest.
The pilot project aims at encouraging the return home of 300-400 convicted repeat offenders from North Africa who have been residing illegally in the city for a number of years. It is not intended for new arrivals.
To be accepted on the scheme a migrant must have served their sentence, agreed to leave voluntarily, confirmed their identity and given fingerprints. Successful applicants receive SFr1,000 for job training once on a flight home. Later they can get an additional SFr3,000 via a local non-governmental organisation if their proposed professional project is validated.
According to the Geneva authorities, ten successful cases – including a mechanic, taxi driver and baker – have already been carried out since last August among the 52 people who have taken initial steps; 30 repatriations a year are planned.
The money for this initiative comes from a police fund generated from drug-related seizures. The results of this pilot project will be analysed at the end of 2013.
The project is supported by federal justice minister Simonetta Sommaruga and at the end of March was presented to cantonal justice and police ministers by the migration office director Mario Gattiker. Cantons Fribourg and Neuchâtel are reportedly interested in the Geneva model.
“It is a stop-gap measure while we await the signature of readmission accords and due to prison overcrowding,” said Isabel Rochat, the Geneva minister in charge of the police. “The Geneva population can no longer put up with street delinquency.”
Return assistance aims to encourage the voluntary and mandatory return of rejected asylum seekers through a system of benefits.
Anyone affected by asylum may apply to cantonal advisory centres, reception centres and to airport transit for return assistance. Even people with refugee status may receive assistance if they wish to return home.
Currently return assistance is not granted to convicted offenders or to persons who have misused the asylum system either during or after proceedings.
Certain groups of people viewed as "foreign nationals" can also receive return assistance, such as victims and witnesses of human trafficking, and cabaret dancers who are being exploited in Switzerland.
With the help of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the migration office implements structural aid programmes in the countries of origin which benefit the local population and the returnees alike. Such programmes include projects to prevent irregular migration.
Since 1993, Bern has signed repatriation accords with 44 states. Of these, 36 are with ex-Soviet republics, the former Yugoslavia and eastern Europe, six Asian states (Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Macau, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam) and two Arab nations (Algeria and Lebanon).
It has also signed conventions with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Sierra Leone which outline the steps for identifying and returning asylum seekers, but their scope is limited. Switzerland has also signed a migration partnership with Nigeria.
On March 28, 2012 Switzerland and Tunisia signed a series of agreements covering migration cooperation. These cover entry, stay and readmission, and will also encourage migrants to return home voluntarily, as well as the procedures for forced repatriation. It also provides for an agreement on an exchange of young professionals to take up further training.
This is the first such agreement with a North African state. Switzerland signed a readmission accord with Algeria in June 2006 that has been in effect since November 2007 but certain technical aspects need to be finalised for the application protocol.
By Simon Bradley, swissinfo.ch