Swiss perspectives in 10 languages

Asylum rules tightened amid leftwing opposition

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga called on parliament to be consistent in its reform of the asylum policy Keystone

Unruly asylum seekers can be put in special centres, conscientious objectors and army deserters lose guaranteed refugee status and asylum applications can no longer be filed at Swiss embassies abroad.

The measures take effect on Saturday, but discussions on Switzerland’s asylum rules are set to continue.

It took the parliamentary chambers at least seven separate debates during the autumn session to agree a package of so called urgent measures. The House of Representatives and the Senate finally succeeded in sorting out the last details of the bill on Thursday.

It allows the government to test different procedures to speed up asylum requests despite opposition by some members of the centre-left parties.

The federal authorities can also house asylum seekers for up to three years in accommodation without asking explicit permission form the local authorities and the 26 cantons – an amendment specifically welcomed by Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga in the past few days.

Both chambers voted for a fast-track introduction of these measures, curtailing the right to challenge them to a nationwide vote – a decision which triggered opposition from Social Democrats and the Greens.

Warning that constitutional rights could be undermined, Senate member Luc Recordon urged parliament “not to resort to mere political grandstanding”.

However,Thomas Minder, an independent with close ties to the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, retorted the population expected parliament to act swiftly.

“I have heard the alarm bells for some time about criminal asylum seekers. I’m sure it will get even worse, especially during the dark winter nights.”

Fair hearing

For her part, Sommaruga said the aim of the reform was to give persecuted people the necessary protection, to ensure a fair asylum procedure and to fight abuses.

“I believe we can adopt a tough stance, but above all we can prove that we have a consistent policy about giving the people in our country a fair hearing.”

She came out in favour of the fast-track introduction of most measures, but warned against expecting too much from the rejection of refugee status for conscientious objectors, notably from Eritrea.

Human rights groups and non-governmental organisations have criticised parliament.


Solidarity Without Borders and Democratic Lawyers Switzerland said the decisions were “irresponsible and shortsighted”.

The Refugee Council said it was considering whether or not to mount a challenge at the ballot box.

“The new law has some positive aspects which are offset by several decisions which could jeopardise the rights of refugees,” a statement said.

Mounting pressure

The debate came as pressure is mounting on the government to reduce the number of asylum requests. Centrist parties have been taking an increasingly hardline policy approach following the example of the People’s Party. There have also been grassroot protests against asylum centres in several regions.

Both parliamentary chambers this autumn session also agreed in principle to reduce aid payments to asylum seekers. However, discussions will continue at a later date.

While the House wants to cut regular financial contributions for all asylum seekers, the Senate watered down the proposals – targeting only refractory asylum seekers.

The People’s Party, as well as the centre-right Radicals and some Christian Democrats argue Switzerland’s regular aid system for asylum seekers is too attractive, while the centre-left warned that the country’s humanitarian tradition is at stake.

Support, including food and board, for people without formal refugee status varies greatly among the country’s 26 cantons. The emergency aid regime foresees minimum payments of around SFr9 ($9.6) a day, according to the Federal Migration Office.

Speeding up

By the end of this year the cabinet is to present a bill aimed at speeding up asylum procedures. It could be tabled in parliament next spring.

The overwhelming majority of asylum applications are dealt with within four months according to the office. But it can take several years for the courts to deal with appeals.

Sommaruga has said the aim is for the authorities to hand down final decisions within 120 days on average.

The reform of the 2008 law was originally proposed by the cabinet, but parliament last December voted to reject part of it and added new proposals of its own.

At the end of 2011, a total of 40,677 people were going through the formal asylum procedure in Switzerland, according to the Federal Migration Office.

The number of new asylum requests had reached 22,551 at the end of last December – the highest figure in nine years.

Latest figures show 2,042 new asylum requests in September, up 18% on the previous month.

Most applications were filed by people from Eritrea, Tunisia and Nigeria.

Overall, the largest number of people going through the lengthy asylum procedure come from Eritrea, Somalia, Serbia, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

Earlier this month, the justice ministry decided to take in a group of 36 Syrians as part of a UN resettlement programme for victims of unrest in the region.

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here. Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR