As the conflict in Syria worsens, Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga wants Switzerland to take in a limited number of those fleeing the fighting, and to reintroduce the so-called quota system to Swiss refugee policy.
The NZZ am Sonntag newspaper quotes “well-informed” sources as saying that at the cabinet meeting next Wednesday she intends to propose that Switzerland should accept a quota of between 300 and 500 refugees.
The paper says the plan follows lengthy discussions with the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, and with the relevant authorities in the cantons, who have expressed their understanding and support for the idea.
The SonntagsZeitung says this is part of a longer term plan; in the immediate future she is willing to accept some 50 refugees.
The Justice Ministry is drawing up a comprehensive refugee resettlement concept which will propose the return to a general quota policy, such as that which Switzerland practised between 1950 and 1995. Under this scheme, the UNHCR selects for resettlement particularly needy refugees, whom receiving countries agree to take in. Since they have already been through a selection process, they would bypass the normal asylum procedure, although receiving countries have the right to check individual dossiers.
This was the scheme by which Switzerland offered refuge, for example, to people fleeing Hungary after the 1956 uprising, Tibet after the Chinese takeover in 1960 and Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion of 1968.
The NZZ am Sonntag points out that if the system is reintroduced, the main question to be decided would be who should be responsible for the refugees and for how long. Current asylum policy stipulates that the federal government is responsible for the costs of recognised refugees for the first five years. Representatives of many of the cantons and communes think this should be longer.
The paper adds that many of the refugees selected by the UNHCR for the programme are traumatised and need special care, rather than simply a roof over their heads.
Switzerland has already taken in two small quotas of refugees, one of 36 and the other of 37 persons.
Other European countries have also agreed to offer refuge to Syrians. Germany is prepared to take in 5,000, and Austria 500. Six other countries have declared themselves ready to do the same.
The UNHCR says over one million refugees arrived in the countries neighbouring Syria in the first five months of 2013. It expects the total number of people to have left Syria by the end of the year to top three million. Three quarters of the refugee population are women and children.
The huge numbers have put a strain on the resources and communities of the host countries. Lebanon, with an estimated 2013 population of about 4,130,000 according to the CIA World Fact Book – just over half that of Switzerland – has taken in the largest number: over 700,000.