The government has unveiled plans to "drastically" reduce the number of illegal immigrants in Switzerland within a year. The Federal Commission for Foreigners wants to set up independent mediation centres across the country to inform illegal immigrants of their rights and to help them be repatriated.
The commission's president, Rosemarie Simmen, told a press conference in Bern that the objective was to reduce in the short term the number of illegal immigrants in Switzerland and to keep numbers down in the future.
The announcement was sharply criticised as "unworkable" by the Swiss organisation Solidarité sans Frontières, which campaigns for immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees.
"I think this is a useless proposition because without any security of a collective regularisation it wouldn't work," said spokeswoman Anni Lanz. "As long as people who don't have any documents risk being sent away they won't contact these services."
Presenting the initiative, Simmen stuck to the government line by stating that a general amnesty for Switzerland's illegal immigrants - estimated by the government at up to 300,000 people - was out of the question. Whether there were 50,000 or 300,000, there were still too many, she said.
She added that many illegal immigrants were unaware of whether they had the right to remain in the country, and staff manning the centres would be able to advise them whether they could apply for residency or a temporary permit.
The new centres would have to be independently run and staffed by lawyers or by non-governmental organisations so as not to scare off illegal immigrants, she insisted.
"We have to gain their confidence and we have to make it plausible that it really is a shelter and a protected area where they can go and seek advice," Simmen told swissinfo.
The commission added that it would now be launching a nationwide information campaign targeted at illegal immigrants, and it promised that any future applications would be looked on "favourably" according to the law.
However Solidarité sans Frontières insisted that unless the government changed the law and granted residency to those who had been in Switzerland for two years, people would be too afraid to come forward.
"It's not because people without documents are not informed about the situation and the laws, it's because they don't have any rights," she said. "A service like this would not be able to help them as long as the laws do not change.
"Under the existing law what will they be able to do other than advise people to go back home?"
Lanz also questioned whether people could be certain that the mediation centres would not pass on information about illegal immigrants to the authorities.
The announcement by the justice ministry came on the same day that nine illegal immigrants from Kosovo, who had been occupying a church in Lausanne for four months, were given leave to remain in the country until January 2002.
Last weekend police in Fribourg ended an 11-week occupation of the Saint-Paul church. Thirty illegal immigrants who fled the church before the police moved in are now occupying a centre for contemporary arts in the city in a bid to secure residency rights in Switzerland.
swissinfo with agencies