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Campaigners hail justice for asylum seekers

The new asylum law provoked strong protests RDB

Critics of Swiss asylum policy have welcomed a court ruling which they say grants greater protection to asylum seekers who arrive without valid identity papers.

This content was published on August 3, 2007 - 21:40

Since the start of the year the Swiss government has been automatically expelling those that fail to produce identity papers within 48 hours without a credible reason.

The controversial measure is part of a tough new asylum law that came into force on January 1. It has been fiercely contested by non-governmental organisations and challenged by the Geneva-based UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

Opponents claim it does not take account of the reality that most people fleeing persecution leave without the necessary documents.

Under the ruling by the Federal Administrative Court, an asylum seeker who fails to present a valid identity card or passport within 48 hours can only be removed from the country if their request is judged to be "manifestly unfounded".

The government said on Friday that the decision "changes nothing" but it has been hailed as a major breakthrough by the Swiss Refugee Council (SRC).

Rape and torture

"We are very pleased with this. We have found cases of people alleging rape and torture that have been channelled through the accelerated procedure and this goes against international law," Jürg Schertenleib, the SRC's head of legal services, told swissinfo.

"What it means now is that if there is any element of doubt, asylum seekers will have to be channelled through the normal process."

The UNHCR, which expressed reservations about the new asylum law as far back as 2004, has always maintained that the fast-track procedure runs contrary to the "spirit and letter" of the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention.

It reiterated on Friday that the absence of valid travel or identity documents was insufficient reason for not looking into the merits of a case.

Karin Jehle, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR's Swiss liaison office, said the ruling had in essence confirmed the refugee agency's concerns.

"With its recent jurisprudence, the Federal Administrative Court contributes to an interpretation and application of the revised Swiss asylum law in a way that all those persons who are in need of international protection receive it," she said.

Broken promises?

The Swiss government promised last year that exceptions would be made in credible cases to prevent "true refugees" being turned down. But at a news conference in Bern last month the SRC said this promise had not been kept.

During the first five months of this year the SRC examined around 1,000 cases where asylum requests were rejected. It said more than half of them were due to missing documents, compared with around ten per cent in 2005.

The Federal Migration Office, however, put a different spin on the court ruling, saying on Friday that "it changes nothing".

Spokeswoman Brigitte Hauser-Süess said every application was examined carefully to see if there were acceptable reasons for missing documents or signs of persecution. "If there needs to be further investigation, we do it," she said.

The migration office said last month that while it had turned down some 700 applications from asylum seekers due to missing documents, it had considered requests in more than 1,000 other cases where documents were lacking.

The office also defended itself against accusations that it had overstepped the line set out by parliament.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

Key facts

There were 10,537 asylum applications in Switzerland in 2006, compared with an average of 25,860 over the past ten years and a peak of 48,057 in 1999.
According to the Federal Migration Office, approximately 10% of asylum seekers are recognised as refugees.

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New asylum law

In September 2006 two-thirds of voters backed new laws on immigration and asylum, which the government said were necessary to make Switzerland less attractive and to curb abuses. It was the ninth time since 1984 that Switzerland's asylum law had been amended.

As a result asylum seekers who cannot produce identity papers within 48 hours without a credible reason have been automatically excluded. Rejected asylum seekers are barred from regular welfare benefits and qualify only for food and shelter.

Rejected asylum seekers who refuse to leave the country face detention of up to two years.

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