Asylum debate causes controversy

A family of rejected asylum seekers get their travel papers at Zurich airport Keystone

The Senate has approved measures aimed at clamping down on illegal immigration and tightening the Swiss asylum law.

This content was published on March 16, 2005

Senators on Thursday passed proposals by justice minister, Christoph Blocher, which include doubling pre-deportation detention and scrapping all welfare payments for rejected asylum seekers.

The House of Representatives - the other parliamentary chamber - approved a previous version of the bill last May with the support of the political Left.

It foresees cracking down on asylum seekers arriving from so-called "safe countries" and permits cuts in development aid to countries which refuse to take back rejected asylum applicants.

At the same time the bill included a proposal to improve the legal status of people who were granted temporary permits on humanitarian grounds in Switzerland. It would make it easier for them to seek a job and to bring over family members.

But in the wake of the debate the new justice minister, Christoph Blocher, a member of the rightwing Swiss People’s party, made it clear he was not happy with the amendments.

"It’s a start but we can’t promise that this law would be enough to eliminate the serious abuses of the right to asylum," said Blocher.

He announced even stricter proposals, the majority of which have been approved by the cabinet.


Under the measures, applicants without identity papers would be excluded from the asylum process, and the maximum time a person could be detained while awaiting deportation would be raised from nine to 18 months.

In addition, all asylum seekers who refuse orders to leave the country would no longer be eligible for any welfare payments. Benefits have already been drastically cut as part of measures that came into force last April.

These proposals have been taken one step further by a Senate committee ahead of the debate.

It advocated an idea put forward by Blocher – but rejected by the rest of the cabinet on humanitarian grounds– of special detention for illegal refugees who do not cooperate with the authorities.

But it also refused to introduce measures approved the House of Representatives aimed at easing restrictions for people who were given temporary permits for humanitarian reasons.


The non-governmental Swiss Refugee Council, religious groups, as well as local authorities, cantonal welfare services and a government advisory body have all condemned the committee proposals.

"The watering down of the statute [on humanitarian asylum status] is such that we are wondering if in practice it’s going to be of any use," the council’s Jürg Schertenleib told Der Bund newspaper.

The council said plans to reduce or refuse welfare handouts to those who don’t cooperate with the authorities were unconstitutional and violated basic human rights.

Reports said even the foreign ministry has circulated an internal memo which criticised the new measures as breaching international law.

Observers expect heated discussions in the Senate on Thursday, which comes at the end of parliament’s three-week spring session.

But the issue will not go away regardless of the outcome of the debate. The law and any amendments will still have to go back to the House of Representatives for approval.


In brief

The amendments foresee that people who have stayed in a third country, which is considered safe, are not eligible for asylum in Switzerland.

The law is aimed at speeding up the asylum procedure and reducing welfare benefits, but it also wants to ease restrictions for asylum seekers with a temporary permit.

The legislation was drafted by the cabinet in 2002. It later proposed extra measures, including tougher detention rules for people who refuse to leave the country.

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