Bern considers tying aid to asylum cooperation

Asylum seekers at the Federal Migration Office reception and procedure centre in Chiasso Keystone

The Swiss government wants to tie development aid to a country’s willingness to take back rejected asylum seekers – a move some observers say will be ineffective.

This content was published on February 28, 2012 minutes

“Take back citizens who have been refused asylum or we will cut off your development aid!” That’s the gist of the message Bern could be sending to those countries whose subjects are among the main asylum seekers to Switzerland.

The plans are targeted in particular towards African and Arab Spring countries.

Even though such a radical move is a long way off, the very mention of it last week by Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga was enough to send newspaper editors into a frenzy.

An interview with Sommaruga first appeared in two daily newspapers, the Aargauer Zeitung and Südostschweiz, on February 20. Discussing Tunisian asylum seekers who were supposed to be repatriated, the minister was asked what would happen if Tunisia did not cooperate.

“The cabinet took an important decision last Wednesday: in future, on issues of international cooperation, it will give greater weight to a state’s desire to collaborate,” she said, adding that the Swiss foreign minister had met his Tunisian counterpart during the World Economic Forum in Davos in January and that talks would follow in the coming weeks.

Would that mean Switzerland would be pushing for an agreement on repatriation with Tunisia? Sommaruga “couldn’t promise anything”.

The plan for international cooperation 2013-2016 that the government adopted on February 15 is restrained on the issue, stating that “when possible and appropriate, Switzerland will try to combine its commitment to development with the defence of its interests in migration”.


But some would like – and are even demanding – a more aggressive policy.

At its autumn session last year, the House of Representatives approved two motions by the rightwing and centre-right parties, which demanded that such reciprocity be the rule. The cabinet recommended rejecting the motions, which are not expected to go before the Senate this spring.

The principle is simple, but would it have the desired effect? “We have very serious doubts,” said Pepo Hofstetter of Alliance Sud, which represents six major non-governmental organisations working in development.

“In 2011, only a quarter of asylum seekers came from countries to which Switzerland was providing long-term aid. If we add the 13 per cent of post-revolutionary North African countries, there is still another 62 per cent of asylum seekers coming from countries to which we give nothing.”

For these countries, the threat of cutting off aid would have no effect. But could others be more easily swayed?

“Not completely. Switzerland does not provide that much aid to central governments, but tries to always give aid on the ground, to local authorities and non-governmental organisations. What purpose does it serve to say to a government that we are going to pull out money that it cannot access anyway?” Hofstetter said.

Furthermore, “development aid should not be used as an instrument for other goals. If we cut it off, it’s the poor who will suffer, not the political elite”, he added.


Countries that receive aid from Switzerland generally are not those that “supply” asylum seekers. And those countries where rejected asylum seekers would return tend not to be ones with which Switzerland has repatriation agreements.

Since Croatia in 1993, Bern has signed such accords with 44 states. Of those, 36 are with ex-Soviet republics, countries of the former Eastern bloc, the former Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe, six Asian states (Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Macau, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam) and two Arab nations (Algeria and Lebanon).

The Balkans and Sri Lanka, which had so many asylum seekers at the end of the previous century, are on the list, but sub-Saharan Africa is noticeably absent.

Switzerland has signed three conventions with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Sierra Leone which outline the steps for identifying and returning asylum seekers, but their scope remains limited until specific accords for repatriation are signed.

With Nigeria, Switzerland trailed a new type of accord: a migration partnership. It has meant that the 4,000 or so Nigerians who have landed in Switzerland in the past two years have practically no chance of staying. In 2010, only two Nigerians were granted asylum.

Action needed

With a migration partnership a comprehensive approach is taken, in line with the fight against human and drug trafficking and in the promotion of human rights. It also involves providing repatriation aid and exchange programmes.

As such, Nigerian police officers could be seen last autumn alongside Swiss officers in St Gallen working against drug dealing on the streets.

Not forgetting, Sommaruga did point out in the above-mentioned interview that “with many countries, collaboration in repatriation works perfectly well”.

“It’s Nigeria, Algeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo that systematically pose the most problems,” said Hofstetter.  

“In Congo, Switzerland provides aid in the Great Lakes region, but the government in Kinshasa is not sufficiently interested in that area to make any threat of cutting off funding there efficient.” 

Nigeria, Algeria and Congo are all linked to Switzerland via various partnerships, conventions or accords. Which just goes to show that more than signatures is needed.

Nothing new

October 2002: Switzerland has signed 13 readmission accords, but it is already suggested that aid be linked to those agreements.

August 2010: A government report states that linking aid to readmissions cannot be the rule, but should only be resorted to when no other solution presents itself.

September 2011: The House of Representatives accepts two proposals – against the government’s wishes – linking readmissions to aid packages. One, submitted by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, demands that Switzerland stop providing aid to countries that refuse to take back their citizens or whose citizens are residing illegally in Switzerland. The other, put forward by the centre-right Radical Party, demands that aid to North African countries should depend on readmission accords. Switzerland would have to try to convince other countries to adopt the same stance until North African nations took back their citizens and secured their borders.

January 2012: Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter holds talks with his Tunisian counterpart on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos about readmissions.

February 2012: Swiss Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga announces that the government will take greater consideration of the desire shown by other states to collaborate, citing Tunisia as an example.

Spring 2012: The Senate will consider the two proposals accepted by the House. The Senate foreign affairs committee has already recommended their acceptation. The People’s Party has warned it will submit another proposal if the current one is turned down by the Senate. It will demand readmission accords with 17 countries within the next two years if aid funding is to continue, with the added threat that diplomatic ties could be cut.

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