Switzerland will have to adapt its laws on asylum and foreigners to conform to a new migration law passed on Wednesday by the European Union's parliament.This content was published on June 18, 2008 - 21:40
The law limits the period illegal immigrants can be detained to 18 months, six months less than is the case in Switzerland, which has signed a security and asylum accord with the EU due to come into effect in a few months' time.
According to the Schengen/Dublin agreements, Switzerland will have two years to bring its laws into line with the EU.
However, the detention issue is politically explosive. Only last year Switzerland doubled the length of time illegal immigrants can be detained from 12 to 24 months.
The government will now have to reduce the term despite large support from the Swiss electorate for the introduction of the longer period.
Political parties backing the tougher measures have the right to call a referendum to keep the law the way it is.
"In my opinion, we should call a referendum out of respect for the clear decision by voters in 2006," said Hans Fehr, parliamentarian from the Swiss People's Party. But Fehr refused to commit the rightwing group to making such a move.
Analysts say it would not be easy for the People's Party to win another vote on the issue since a referendum would be held after the Schengen/Dublin accords come into effect.
If Switzerland were to fail to implement articles contained in the accords, it would risk being thrown out of the Schengen zone.
Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf has said she does not think a reduction of the detention period will cause problems. She said the cantons have been evaluating the impact of the tougher asylum measures since the beginning of this year.
This, she insisted, would reveal whether the regional authorities were, in practice, detaining illegal immigrants for the maximum period.
But studies carried out by the Federal Statistics Office show that when the maximum length was 12 months, the average amount of time anyone spent in detention was only 22 days.
The non-governmental organisation, the Swiss Refugee Council, welcomed the decision by the EU.
"This decision by the European parliament shows that the system works, and that it will have consequences for Switzerland," Refugee Council spokesman Yann Golay told swissinfo.
"Switzerland is obliged to respect European standards and to ensure that its laws are not tougher than those of other countries," he added.
The 18-month detention limit is longer than the current maximum period in two-thirds of the 27 EU states.
Illegal migrants cannot be detained for more than 40 days in Spain and a year in Hungary, according to European Commission data.
Germany already has an 18-month detention cap, while eight EU countries, which have higher caps or none at all would need to introduce the new limit.
Part of the new EU migration law concerns expulsions, and will also require Switzerland to change its regulations.
In future, any asylum seeker whose request has been rejected must receive written notification that he or she is being expelled, the Swiss Migration Office said.
swissinfo, Simon Thönen in Brussels and agencies
Swiss 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.
Under the new asylum law, those who fail to produce valid travel and identification documents within 48 hours can be rejected.
Asylum seekers who refuse to leave the country could be detained for up to two years pending deportation. Minors could also be detained for up to one year.
They also lose the right to social security benefits and receive emergency aid of SFr960 ($805) a month.
Illegal immigrants and rejected asylum seekers are to receive between seven and 30 days to leave the country voluntarily.
They can only be placed in detention when the authorities have reason to believe they will go into hiding to avoid expulsion.
As a rule, detention should not exceed six months.
However, an extension of up to 18 months in total is possible if the repatriation is delayed due to a lack of cooperation on the part of the immigrant or there is difficulty identifying his or her country of origin.
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