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Sino-Swiss migration deal sparks controversy

Workers adjusts Swiss and Chinese flags before a meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter in Beijing, China, on January 15, 2016. Keystone / Mark Schiefelbein / Pool

Elected officials and NGOs have raised concerns about an accord between Bern and Beijing that allows Chinese agents to visit Switzerland to identify and deport illegal residents. Defenders of the agreement argue it is a mechanism that facilitates the application of the law.

This content was published on September 12, 2020 - 17:36

“Should officials of brutal dictatorships be allowed to hunt down their compatriots in Switzerland?” This question, posed by the organisation Notre Droit (Our Right), sums up the controversy in Switzerland following August 23 revelations by the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper of the little-known bilateral agreement.

Concluded in December 2015 between the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) and its equivalent in the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, the text allows two-week visas to be granted to two Chinese agents. Their role: to help SEM confirm the nationality and identity of Chinese nationals suspected of residing illegally in Switzerland, with a view to sending them back.

The visit of these Chinese agents occurs by invitation and at the expense of the Swiss government. According to the NZZ report, only one Chinese delegation has come to Switzerland to date, in 2016, resulting in the expulsion of 13 people.

The contents of the agreement in detail

Bern and Beijing signed the accord “to strengthen the bilateral collaboration in the fight against irregular migration”, states the preamble of the text seen by swissinfo.ch. “The Swiss side sends an invitation to the Chinese side” so that two experts from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security can stay in Switzerland for two weeks maximum. “The experts are invited without an official status”, continues the text. 

Once in Switzerland, “the experts interrogate the alleged Chinese citizens” to “evaluate the plausibility of their nationality”. At the end of their mission, the officials must give the Swiss authorities a report detailing the results of each interrogation.  

Later in the document, it is mentioned that “the two parties can also agree to strengthen their exchanges in the area of migration” and border control. Finally, an entire point is dedicated to data protection. “Personal data can only be used for the objectives outlined in the agreement,” it is noted.  

One annex of the document further details the conditions under which the Chinese officials are welcomed. We thus learn that the SEM pays CHF200 per day for each expert for the duration of the mission, as well as for direct economy flights to and from China and Switzerland, visas, accommodation, work materials, health and accident insurance, and personal protection for the agents while they are in Swiss territory.  

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The document is only being talked about now because almost nobody knew of its existence. As it is a technical agreement and not, strictly speaking, an international treaty, it could be signed on the quiet. It was never published by the government because it didn’t need to be, according to the SEM. The accord’s existence has come to light a few months before it is due to expire. The decision to renew it or not will be made at the end of the year.  

'In Switzerland’s interests'

SEM has defended the practice, which it judges necessary to accomplish its role of sending back illegal aliens. The Chinese officials “conduct interviews with the people who have been legally expelled and who must leave Switzerland”, SEM communications manager Daniel Bach told swissinfo.ch in an email.  

“It only concerns people who have received a legally binding notice,” he insists. Readmission agreements of this type “are concluded at Switzerland’s request because they are in the interests of our country". 

“The fact is that people who have been legally expelled and who are staying in Switzerland illegally must leave our country. The alternative is that they continue to live here - without residency rights," he said.

Bach added that cooperation in matters of identification would be possible even without a formal agreement, on the sole legal basis of the Law on Asylum and the Law on Foreigners and Integration.  

An externalisation of migration policy?

Bern has concluded similar agreements with around 60 other nations, including countries where the question of human rights is equally sensitive (such as Turkey, Russia, the Philippines and Algeria). Most of these arrangements are part of formal readmission agreements, which currently number 48, and some of which are valid for several countries.  

Holder of the chair of European Law and European Migration Law at the University of Fribourg, Sarah Progin-Theuerkauf sees the agreements as an example of a migration policy that is both more restrictive and increasingly externalised. “In order to get rid of as many people as possible while keeping our hands clean, we are ready to delegate the question to third party countries, which are not always very democratic. But as the State which finances it, we still have a responsibility,” she comments.  

She told swissinfo.ch that she had also discovered the existence of these agreements through the media. This raises problems of transparency “for decisions which have such political significance”, she noted.

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State Secretary for Migration Mario Gattiker recently appeared before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC). Committee member and Vaudois representative for the Radical Party, Laurent Wehrli, found his explanations convincing.  

Although he concedes being shocked initially, the Vaud parliamentarian believes that readmission agreements are necessary to apply the law on returning foreigners, especially criminals, and are therefore the will of the people.  

“We need a structure, and I prefer that it be framed in the context of an accord” which “puts in place system and modalities,” he explained. Wehrli says he is therefore in favour of renewing the agreement, but “the government must be careful to ensure that human rights are guaranteed”.  

Concern for deportees 

This is the main point of tension, given that China is regularly criticised for its human rights violations. The repression of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong or the revelations concerning the fate of the Uighur minorities are recent examples.  

“The situation has also hardened sharply and worsened in recent months in terms of domestic politics, with more surveillance and repression of dissenters,” explains Angela Mattli, campaign manager for minorities and discrimination at the Society for Threatened Peoples.  

In the wake of the NZZ’s revelations, Fabien Molina, a Social Democrat parliamentarian, and Sibel Arslan, of the Green Party, both FAC members, have called for the contract to be stopped.  

Calling the agreement “extremely problematic”, Amnesty International supports their efforts.  

“The monitoring of the risks is not robust enough to allow its prolongation,” Amnesty International spokesperson Nadia Boehlen told swissinfo.ch. 

SEM insists that only people who are not at risk of persecution in their country of origin can be interrogated - which excludes persecuted Tibetan and Uighur minorities.  

The ministry notes that the Chinese experts only receive information to help them with identification, and no information linked to an asylum procedure, a criminal procedure, or the reasons for which the interrogated person left China is provided.  

Amnesty International nonetheless worries about the treatment that could be waiting in China for returned people who had hidden their identity and/or nationality, for example.  

“On this point, the response of SEM is not sufficient. It seems no risk analysis has been done and nor is any monitoring in the country of origin being done,” says Boehlen.  

The Society for Threatened Peoples, represented in the Senate by Lisa Mazzone of the Green Party, is calling for monitoring and that each readmission agreement be accompanied by limitations where fundamental rights are not respected. It is a position shared by the Our Right association.   

At this stage, a decision on whether to renew the agreement or not, has yet to be made. SEM is still holding discussions with China. 

The issue could be raised again during the autumn session of parliament. Regardless of the tone of the debate, the accord could still be renewed without parliament’s support. But the decision will surely not be as quiet as five years ago.  

Translated from French by Sophie Douez.

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