Swiss immigration policy and the deportation of undesirables are hot topics in a country where one in five people is a foreigner. While some have committed crimes, the reasons why others are being expelled are not always as clear-cut.
In 2010, four years after changing the legislation on asylum and foreign residents, the Swiss electorate accepted a controversial deportation initiative. The rightwing proposal aimed to automatically deport foreign nationals convicted of particular crimes. These include sex crimes, robbery, drug dealing and social welfare abuse.
Capturing the intent of the initiative in a piece of legislation is turning out to be more of a problem. And not just because the text may conflict with constitutional provisions and international agreements to which Switzerland subscribes.
There is uneasiness about the fact that the list of crimes mentioned in the initiative is quite a mixed bag. Potentially, it might include less serious offences like breaking and entering.
While on the one hand crime statistics seem to support the views of hardliners (see graphic), on the other, voices are being raised against xenophobic hysteria that would want to criminalise – and therefore deport – people who are not criminals at all. But who are the foreign nationals who actually get expelled from Switzerland?
“There are two distinct groups: asylum seekers, and those whose cases are governed by the federal legislation on foreign nationals,” explained Hendrick Krauskopf, an expert on deportation procedures at the Federal Migration Office.
The Migration Office only deals with asylum seekers. It leaves it to the cantons to handle deportation of foreigners who have failed to comply with regulations on entry and residence in Switzerland.
In 2011 deportees leaving Switzerland by air numbered 9,461 (8,059 in 2010). More than two-thirds of these departures (6,669) slotted into the asylum category. “These were asylum seekers who got an adverse decision or who failed to qualify for further consideration of their application,” said Krauskopf.
‘Failure to qualify’ is when the asylum application is unjustified or incomplete - or when the applicant has already applied in another country (as specified in the Dublin accords).
According to the procedure in place since December 2008, Switzerland can send the person to the European state judged competent to deal with the matter. “Half of the asylum seekers deported last year came under the terms of the Dublin accords,” said Krauskopf.
About 40 per cent of the applicants turned down left voluntarily, Krauskopf noted. “That means that they went to the airport without a police escort. In the other cases the person was accompanied by officers at least until they boarded the plane.”
To encourage voluntary departures by asylum seekers, Switzerland has a repatriation allowance, which usually it takes the form of money. In April the government proposed that this amount be increased up to a maximum of SFr2,000 ($2,100), with the aim of speeding up departures.
This new grants system would be like the so-called “Maghreb plan” used by the canton of Geneva to deal with North African asylum seekers and criminals.
Not all applicants who have been turned down actually leave Switzerland. Some of them - there are no official statistics - just go underground. With no residence permit, they swell the ranks of the ‘sans papiers’ who have no official status in the country.
Illegals or criminals?
There are several reasons to deport a foreigner who is not an asylum seeker, as Guy Burnens, head of the foreign department at canton Vaud’s registry of residents, explained to swissinfo.ch.
“There may be illegal residence. This involves not just ‘sans papiers’, but also students given temporary residence who stay on in Switzerland after they have finished their studies. Or foreigners who after having obtained a residence permit under family reunification rules immediately end their marriage.”
Legislation also allows for some permits for people who depend on social welfare to be revoked, said Burnens.
Then there are the real criminals. These are foreigners expelled for committing serious crimes or because they are deemed a danger to public order and safety.
There are no exact figures on them, said Burnens. “We do not yet have the means to capture such statistics. I would emphasise, however, that when you look at all the deportation decisions, foreigners who have committed serious crimes are not in the majority.”
According to the Migration Office, deported foreign criminals are definitely in the minority: between 350 and 400 a year, as the then head of the office, Alard du Bois-Reymond, indicated in 2010.
Willing to negotiate
The deadline for leaving Switzerland is specific to each case, emphasised Burnens. “If the person is not a threat, they get up to three months’ notice. But when we are dealing with serious cases, like a drug dealer, deportation may be immediate.”
In canton Vaud, which, at 30 per cent, has one of the highest concentrations of foreigners in the country, they tend to prefer voluntary departures, Burnens said. A person who does not respond to the summons is called in by officials to discuss their departure.
”We are willing to negotiate the deadline, with families, for example. Sometimes we offer a repatriation grant, similar to what happens with asylum seekers.” The aim of this grant, which can be anything up to SFr6,000, is to facilitate reintegration back in the county of origin.
If people continue to stay in Switzerland they can be removed by force, said Marc Aurel Schmid, spokesman for Zurich’s migration department. “They can be put in administrative detention and forcibly repatriated.”
In extreme cases, the Federal Migration Office and the police use special flights (as was the case for 165 people in 2011), a controversial approach which includes the use of physical force, handcuffs and other means of confining the person.
Ban on re-entry
In theory, a foreigner expelled from Switzerland could come back a few days later. All he would need to do is request a visa from a Swiss embassy, or, for citizens of the European Union, to enter via provisions outlined in the Schengen zone’s Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons.
As a result, the deportation decision is coupled more and more frequently with a ban on re-entry to Switzerland, said Schmid. “The longest period is five years. For people who constitute a threat, it can be extended.”
This kind of ban does not however guarantee that unwanted foreign nationals will really stay away. As the Zurich cantonal police found out last year, the more resourceful ones will even apply for a new passport in their country of origin and then return to Switzerland under another name.