Swiss Justice Minister Christoph Blocher has proposed setting up refugee camps abroad as a way of stemming the flow of asylum seekers into the country.
But the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has criticised the plans and warned that they will not solve the problem of illegal immigration.
Blocher’s proposals come as the Swiss parliament debates plans to tighten the country’s asylum laws.
The justice minister, a member of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, suggests that refugee centres could be built in African countries and the Balkans.
Under Blocher’s plans, the UN would be charged with sharing out quotas of “genuine refugees” among European countries able to take responsibility for them.
Switzerland would no longer have to deal with large numbers of asylum applications, but would be responsible for 4,000 refugees per year.
Blocher added that the Swiss army and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) would take charge of the refugees in purpose-built camps set up in crisis regions.
But SDC spokesman Harry Sivec said the proposals should be taken in the context of a wider international debate on asylum.
“This suggestion needs to be discussed in the first instance at the international level, together with the UNHCR,” said Sivec.
“Until this happens, there is really no point in the SDC offering its own opinion about the proposal,” he added.
The Geneva-based UNHCR welcomes the fact that a number of countries are discussing possible solutions to the immigration problem, but has reservations about Blocher’s proposals.
“We would be very worried if the setting up of such refugee camps led to a situation where Europe effectively sealed itself off,” said UNHCR legal adviser Madalena Hogg.
The UN warns that individual countries will not solve the problem of illegal immigration simply by setting up centres abroad. It also fears that refugees will no longer have access to a fair asylum process.
Swiss Refugee Council spokesman Jürg Schertenleib told swissinfo the idea of setting up camps outside European borders was “unrealistic”.
“It is right that Switzerland can and should be responsible for a fixed number of refugees. But this must be in addition to the existing policy of assessing asylum applications on a case-by-case basis,” said Schertenleib.
“Every refugee has his or her own personal reasons for fleeing… and in our view Switzerland would clearly be in contravention of the Geneva Convention on Refugees if it refused to hear individual asylum cases,” he added.
The idea of setting up asylum centres outside Europe is not new. A number of European Union member states have already mooted proposals similar to those suggested by Blocher.
During a visit to Tripoli last week, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pushed to set up migrant reception centres in Libya to stem the tide of refugees who cross by boat from North Africa to Europe.
German Interior Minister Otto Schily has also endorsed a controversial idea first proposed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to set up camps in locations beyond the EU border.
Last year Britain was forced to drop the proposals following pressure from Sweden and France, which said the plans breached international law.
But a spokesman for the European Commission in Brussels said member states were still committed to combating illegal immigration. The recently-expanded EU – of which Switzerland is not a member - is planning to create its own agency to help manage its external borders.
Incoming Justice Commissioner Rocco Buttiglione has made it clear he is in favour of setting up holding centres to screen migrants before they enter the EU.
The Netherlands, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, has indicated that the topic of asylum could be discussed at the next meeting of the bloc’s interior ministers at the end of September.
Souhayr Belhassan, vice-president of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, said she was “very worried” about the EU plans.
swissinfo, Christian Raaflaub and Barbara Speziali
About 10% of asylum seekers are granted refugee status in Switzerland.
The number of asylum requests per 100,000 inhabitants:
Austria - 875
Switzerland - 643
Britain - 277
France - 189
Germany - 147
Swiss Justice Minister Christoph Blocher has come out in favour of setting up refugee camps in third countries.
But his proposals have been greeted with scepticism by the United Nations refugee agency and the Swiss Refugee Council.
Blocher’s suggestion comes amid a Europe-wide debate about how to tackle the problem of illegal immigration.