Surveillance of social insurance clients abroad may take place only if provided for by international treaties, according to the Swiss authorities. Negotiations are underway for a series of accords with governments mainly in southeastern Europe and Latin America.
The new legal basis for covert surveillance will be put to a nationwide vote on November 25. Could the issue affect Swiss Abroad? No, unless they happen to be visiting Switzerland, says the government.
New legislative amendments approved by parliament in March 2018 give the option to social insurance agencies to carry out covert spying on their clients, where there is reason to suspect benefit fraud.
The new rules were drafted following a decision of the European Court of Human Rightsexternal link, which found that there was not an adequate legal basis in Switzerland for surveillance of social insurance clients.
Opponents of the new rules have since triggered a referendum, so there will be a nationwide vote on the proposed legislative amendments this coming November 25.
One of the new provisions of the legislationexternal link (art. 43b, paragraph 4) states that the Federal Administrative Court may authorise use of technology to track the location of the person being investigated "if the client lives abroad".
Does this mean the legislation opens the door to possible surveillance of Swiss social insurance clients even in other countries? These new rules apply to the whole gamut of accident insurance, disability insurance, the old age pension scheme, unemployment insurance and compulsory health insurance. So the issue might well be of concern to the Swiss Abroad community – and even foreigners resident abroad who happen to be clients of a Swiss social insurance programme.
"Not clients abroad"
The Federal Social Insurance Officeexternal link, responding to a query from swissinfo.ch, has stated however that the new rules do not concern social insurance clients resident abroad.
“The new legal basis should mean no change for Swiss abroad. Not even for foreigners resident abroad", says Harald Sohns, spokesman for the insurance office. "Swiss rules about surveillance govern only surveillance carried out in Switzerland."
Then why does the law specifically refer to the Federal Administrative Court having jurisdiction as regards social insurance clients resident abroad?
A request for further clarification from swissinfo.ch brought the following reply from insurance office spokeswoman Elisabeth Hostettler: "A Swiss resident abroad might be subject to surveillance when in Switzerland. The provision you mentioned is intended for such cases.”
Surveillance only by treaty
The government department clarified further that surveillance of social insurance clients abroad is an option only if the necessary legal basis is contained in an international agreement on social insurance and if the legislation of the other country allows it.
As part of negotiations with a view to setting up or renewing such agreements, Switzerland is now trying to insert clauses enabling mutual assistance for investigating cases of suspected fraud. These provisions would allow the other government to carry out the appropriate investigations on its own territory at Switzerland’s request.
"Currently the only agreement containing such a clause and already in force is the one with Uruguayexternal link,” says spokesman Sohns.
Other agreements with a clause of this kind have been under negotiation with Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Montenegro, Serbia, Argentina, Tunisia, Albania and Peru, but have yet to be signed, ratified, or come into force.
Kosovo and Thailand
In the past there has been surveillance of social insurance clients abroad. In 2009, as part of a pilot project connected with the reform of the disability insurance programme, the government started systematic checking on disability benefits paid out to social insurance clients resident in Kosovo and Thailand. More than a dozen of these cases involved surveillance of the clients.
These actions uncovered some instances of abuse of the system, but they did encounter some difficulties along the way.
In Kosovo, inspectors received death threats. For that reason, Switzerland decided that it would no longer apply the agreement on social insurance entered into with the former Yugoslavia in the case of Kosovo. In the meantime, Kosovo and Switzerland have been negotiating a new agreement.
At present, however, sending insurance agency investigators abroad is no longer an option. "There is no longer the intention to do it, and anyway the legal basis would not allow it," explains spokeswoman Hostettler.
Pension payments - facts and figures
In 2017 the Old Age Pension Fund paid 1,666,412 pensions to persons resident in Switzerland. In the same year, the fund paid 898,883 pensions to persons resident abroad, of whom 123,819 were of Swiss nationality and 775,064 were of other nationalities.
The total amount paid out for these pensions abroad in 2017 was over CHF510 million ($510 million), of which CHF139 million went to Swiss citizens and CHF371 million to citizens of other countries.
Also in 2017, the Disability Insurance Fund paid out pensions to 319,294 people in total, of whom 277,975 were resident in Switzerland and 41,319 abroad. Of the latter group, 8751 had Swiss nationality and 32,568 had other nationalities. The total of pensions paid out amounted to more than CHF391 million, of which more than CHF10 million went to Swiss resident abroad, and more than CHF26 million went to foreign nationals resident abroad.
The Federal Office of Social Insurance says it has no separate data on benefit fraud involving residents abroad who are in receipt of Swiss social insurance payments.end of infobox
Adapted from Italian by Terence MacNamee/urs, swissinfo.ch