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Commissioner urges new law amid “rising racism”

The commissioner called on the authorities to work harder to gain people's support for temporary asylum centres Keystone

The Council of Europe’s human rights chief has called for an overhaul of Swiss anti-discrimination law and policy.

Intolerance and racism are “dangerously on the rise”, the commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, said after a four-day review of Swiss policies and practices.

The review was part of the Council of Europe’s ongoing assessments of the human rights situation in member states. The last such Swiss review was in 2004 and this time around it paid particular attention to how Switzerland was fighting racism and xenophobia.

“There is a clear need of a new, comprehensive anti-discrimination law, coupled by an independent and effective mechanism of supervision, redress and prevention of human rights violations,” said Hammarberg at the close of a series of talks with government, watchdogs and civil society.

To this end, he recommended strengthening the Federal Commission against Racism and setting up ombudsmen in each canton. There were still gaps in Swiss law when it came to protecting vulnerable people from discrimination, he said.

If Switzerland wanted to meet European and international standards for human rights, “vigorous and concerted efforts” were needed, he warned.

As evidence of the growing intolerance and racism he pointed to the “frequency of anti-migrant public manifestations by some major political forces”.

In particular he singled out the rightwing Swiss People’s Party’s controversial but successful initiatives to ban the construction of minarets and automatically expel foreign criminals, saying they would “target and stigmatise migrant communities”.

“They raise serious issues of compatibility with human rights standards, notably those of the European Convention on Human Rights,” he noted.

Positive signs

He did find some things to praise however. Positive efforts in migrant integration such as the creation of an advisory council of foreigners in Zurich showed “a clear determination to tackle these challenges”.

The recently-established Swiss Centre of Expertise in Human Rights was also a positive initiative which he said should be further promoted, and should lead to an independent national human rights institution.

The review was reminiscent of a Council of Europe commission report in 2009 which found racism was widespread in Switzerland, with direct racial discrimination in gaining access to jobs, housing, goods and services.

According to the report, the victims were mainly Muslims and people originating from the Balkans, Turkey and Africa.

Anti-racism bodies in Switzerland mainly agreed with the findings at the time, although it was noted that progress was being made. The People’s Party however said it was being unfairly targeted and criticism by international bodies was being spurred on by the political left.  

Thursday’s findings also echoed a United Nations committee review in 2010 which said women, immigrants, gypsies and poor people were discriminated against. At the time it too cautioned against “increasing intolerance and xenophobia” in Switzerland.

Hot topic

Hammerberg called on the authorities to pay mind to the naturalisation of immigrants, saying the process was of “crucial importance for their full integration” and arbitrariness in such decisions should be avoided.

Immigration and asylum are among the most controversial political topics in Switzerland. The country is struggling to cope with the rising number of asylum seekers – applications rose by around 45 per cent in 2011.

Hammarberg weighed in on the subject in an interview with Swiss television, describing a move by the justice minister to shorten asylum procedures as a way of deterring applicants as an “interesting concept” that would not affect human rights.

He also urged the Swiss authorities to work harder to gain the support of citizens to set up more temporary centres for asylum seekers, which are in short supply. “These people must have decent accommodation. Switzerland is obliged to take them in.”

A report on the commissioner’s review will be published by the Council of Europe at a later date.

The Human Rights Commissioner is responsible for raising public awareness on human rights questions in the 47 member states of the Council of Europe and for advising European governments on how to improve national human rights protection. In this context the Council of Europe holds human rights reviews in all member states and on this basis produces reports on the human rights situation.

Thomas Hammarberg has been in the role since 2006 and will be succeeded at the end of March by Nils Muiznieks from Latvia

The number of asylum applications submitted in 2011 was up by about 45 per cent on that in 2010, according to the Federal Migration Office. 
At 22,551, the number was the highest since 2002.
The office attributed the sharp increase to the crisis in North Africa, and the opening of migration routes to Europe in March.
The top three countries from which the asylum seekers came were Eritrea (3,356), Tunisia (2,574) and Nigeria (1,895).
The number of people granted asylum was up 7.6 per cent on 2010, at 3,711.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR