More Syrians arrive amid visa U-turn

A child at a Syrian refugee camp in southern Lebanon on November 26 Keystone

A first group of 30 Syrian refugees accepted as part of a United Nations programme has arrived in Switzerland. The cabinet meanwhile confirmed it had ended rules to ease family reunifications for relatives of Syrian nationals.

This content was published on November 29, 2013 - 17:23
Simon Bradley in Geneva, and agencies

Seven families of refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict, including nine women and 15 children, arrived in Switzerland on Friday, the justice ministry said in a statement.

This is the first group of 500 refugees the alpine nation has agreed to take in over the next three years as part of a pilot project that was given the green light in September, following a request from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

The extremely vulnerable refugees will receive asylum status and benefit from special integration projects. They will be welcomed in canton Solothurn.

Switzerland has already taken in two groups of particularly vulnerable refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria – around 70 people – over the past 18 months in collaboration with UNHCR.

Visa tightening

At the same time the Swiss cabinet announced on Friday that it was tightening visa requirements for relatives of Syrian nationals living in Switzerland. Numbers of those coming and submitting asylum requests rose steeply following the easing of rules three months ago.

On September 4, the Swiss authorities decided to widen the circle of Syrian family members allowed to apply for a visa to Switzerland to be reunited with relatives. Those then eligible included children aged over 18, parents, grandparents, grandchildren and brothers and sisters instead of just partners and children under 18.

The measure had applied to Syrians whose relatives were already living in Switzerland with B or C residence permits or who were naturalised Swiss citizens. There are thought to be about 6,000 Syrians living in the country, of whom about 1,600 have regular residence permits.

The migration authorities say 719 Syrians came to Switzerland since the measure was introduced in September, including 475 women and children, of whom 385 made an asylum request. The number of visitor visa requests doubled from 800 to 1,600 and 5,000 Syrians organised meetings at Swiss diplomatic missions to file requests.

U-turn defence

Following the new change, the migration office now requires a letter of invitation from the host families, as is also usual for a visitors’ visa.

It is also checking the financial affairs of host families who will be responsible for their relatives for three months. The relatives from Syria must also agree to leave the country after 90 days or, if not possible, register themselves with cantonal migration offices.

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga defended the U-turn, saying the initial decision had been effective and had only ever been “temporary”.

“Switzerland helped many people quickly and in a non-bureaucratic way. We could assume that those who were in a real emergency used this possibility,” she declared.

Plight of children

But the non-governmental Swiss Refugee Council last week criticised the change.

“This is not just tightening, it’s basically a cancellation of easing of family reunification,” said the NGO’s secretary-general Beat Meiner. “These financial demands now being made prevent Syrians from travelling to Switzerland.”

More than two million Syrians fled their homes because of the country’s raging conflict, seeking shelter in neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. At least half of the refugees – 1.1 million – are children. Of those, 75% are under the age of 12.

A UNHCR report released on Friday highlighted the catastrophic plight of the children, many traumatised, who are growing up in fractured families, missing out on education and increasingly going out to work to help support extended families in exile.

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