In a bid to overcome divisions among the political left and civil society on how to deal with stricter asylum rules, the non-governmental Refugee Council and Amnesty International have presented key principles to guarantee a non-discriminatory asylum procedure.
“It is time to break the vicious circle of increasingly tighter asylum laws and opposition against them,” said Manon Schick, director of the Swiss chapter of Amnesty International.
She is convinced that a tougher policy does not meet its target and unfairly punishes people in need who deserve to be given sanctuary in Switzerland.
Schick said the NGOs presented a list of proposals to the Federal Migration Office last month and were waiting for an official response.
The organisations also called for round-table talks involving political parties, cantonal authorities, civil society and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Among the suggestions contained in the nine proposals are independent legal advice for asylum seekers, a transparent and fair asylum procedure and quality controls.
“A just procedure needs more than sufficient resources. Measures to review the quality and efficiency must also be put into place,” said Susanne Bolz of the Swiss Refugee Council.
But she urged the authorities to reconsider giving certain groups of asylum seekers priority, a practice that often leaves particularly vulnerable applicants waiting.
“An asylum procedure is no picnic,” she said.
Denise Graf, Amnesty Switzerland’s asylum expert, stressed the importance of providing housing and non-profit employment programmes for people who have fled their countries.
“Programmes are the best way of preventing conflicts and tensions,” she said.
Graf came out in favour of decentralised asylum sites. She also called for financial incentives to encourage rejected asylum seekers to return to their home countries voluntarily.
Deportation flights should be avoided, she added.
The NGOs called on politicians and the media to discuss asylum in an international context. Former UNHCR delegate Jean-Noël Wetterwald said that, of the 15 million refugees worldwide, only 2.3 per cent fled to Europe last year.
The latest measures to tighten asylum rules - approved by parliament in September – have split the political left and civil society.
An alliance, including leftwing parties, trade unions and church groups, is trying to win public support – at least 50,000 signatures within 100 days - to challenge the parliamentary decision and force a nationwide vote.
Several local chapters of the centre-left Social Democrats have also come out in favour of the referendum, despite a refusal by the party leadership to support the committee.
Party president Christian Levrat said a defeat at the ballot box was inevitable, and would spur the right wing to push ahead with further tightening.
He said it was not realistic to expect more than a third of voters to oppose stricter asylum laws. Levrat added it was hardly worth the effort to combat a temporary tightening of the asylum policy in the light of further planned reforms.
The measures include a ban on asylum applications being handed in at Swiss embassies abroad and denying requests by conscientious objectors, particularly from Eritrea.
During its winter session next month, parliament is due to discuss measures to speed up the asylum procedure. The government said it was aiming for an average of 120 days for the authorities to take a final decision on an asylum request.
In September parliament decided on a series of temporary measures to tighten asylum rules - the tenth reform since 1981.
At the end of 2011, a total of 40,677 people were going through the formal asylum procedure in Switzerland, according to the Federal Migration Office.
The number of new asylum requests had reached 22,551 at the end of last December – the highest figure in nine years.
Latest figures show 2,407 new asylum requests in October, up 7% on the previous month.
Most applications were filed by people from Eritrea, Nigeria, Tunisia and Syria.
The authorities also recorded a stark increase in asylum applications by people from Morocco last month, while requests from Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia dropped.
By Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch