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Government urges "no" in asylum vote

Almost all asylum seekers arrive through Switzerland's neighbours

(Keystone)

The justice minister, Ruth Metzler, has urged voters to reject a tightening of the asylum laws, proposed by the right-wing Swiss People's Party.

Her comments came at the official launch of the government's campaign against the initiative, which will go to a nationwide vote on November 24.

"We want to be tough when it is necessary to send people back, but we also want to be humanitarian and protect people when they need it," she told swissinfo.

She said the People's Party's proposals were counterproductive, expensive and contradicted Switzerland's humanitarian tradition.

Safe third countries

She was especially critical of the proposal to force asylum seekers, who have arrived in Switzerland through one of its neighbours, to return to those countries to have their applications assessed.

"We also want an agreement to send asylum seekers back to so-called 'safe countries' to have their cases heard, if that is how they arrived in Switzerland," she told swissinfo.

"But that can only been done through international cooperation and not force - and that is something the initiative does not take into account."

Metzler also warned that if the People's Party won the vote, Switzerland would have a law in place that would be unacceptable to its neighbours.

Difficult to enforce

She stressed that it would be difficult to enforce with around 95 per cent of Switzerland's asylum seekers arriving through Austria, Italy, France or Germany.

Jean-Daniel Gerber, head of the Federal Refugee Office, told swissinfo that Switzerland already has a policy of cooperating with its neighbours to send asylum seekers back to have their applications assessed.

"Forcing them back," he said. "Would not solve the problem at all.

"Our experience is that only about ten per cent of asylum seekers can be sent back to those safe countries. The other 90 per cent stay here."

Gerber also warned that the People's Party's initiative would make it harder to distinguish genuine claims for asylum from bogus ones.

He said the proposed changes to the law would make it impossible to conduct individual interviews with asylum seekers.

"Everyone would be treated in the same way," he said. "We would decide their case on the basis of whether they had entered Switzerland through a safe country, and then return them there."

Higher costs

The People's Party is also proposing that the benefits' system for asylum seekers be taken out of the hands of the cantons.

The government maintains that making the federal authorities responsible for benefits would increase costs rather than reduce them, as the People's Party is arguing.

Metzler said proposed changes to the system would require enormous organisational and structural changes and could cost as much as SFr100 million a year.

She warned against cutting benefits to a bare minimum for those whose applications had been turned down. She also said preventing them from working while they remained in Switzerland would increase the likelihood of them becoming involved in crime, drugs or illegal unemployment.

Tough campaign

Metzler admitted that the campaign leading up to the vote would be a difficult one.

She told swissinfo that that when the time came to vote the Swiss would appreciate that the current law, although far from perfect, was preferable to the changes being sought by the People's Party.

"There are without doubt people who abuse our system," she said. "And the Swiss see that on a daily basis.

"But they have a very good sense of what is wrong and what is right and the initiative clearly creates more problems than it solves."

swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton

Key facts

There are currently about 67,000 asylum seekers in Switzerland.
More than 95 per cent of applicants arrive through Switzerland's neighbours.
A nationwide vote on changes to the asylum laws will take place on November 24.

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