Refugee repatriation debate rears its head

Should they stay or should they go? Keystone

Repatriating rejected asylum seekers has become a thorny issue for Switzerland with some countries reluctant to take back their citizens.

This content was published on May 4, 2010 - 20:20

Although the Swiss political left and right want more repatriation agreements signed, the process involves tough negotiations.

Nigerian refugees, who filed the most asylum applications in 2009, recently thrust the issue of asylum seekers into the headlines.

Comments by the head of the Federal Migration Office, Alard du Bois-Reymond, that Nigerians “were not coming to seek asylum but to do illegal business” were widely criticised by non-governmental organisations including Amnesty International.

Despite controversy over the issue, asylum goals are nevertheless being set. In Switzerland and Europe as a whole, where there is increasing migration, the trend is towards wanting to accelerate the decision procedures of asylum cases. It is an objective that cannot be achieved without the cooperation of an applicant’s country of origin.

But obstacles often come down to one word: repatriation. The Spanish Presidency of the European Union has set a goal for 2010 of boosting the number of repatriation agreements with countries that illegal immigrants have come from or whose application for asylum have been rejected. In so doing, a common European policy would be established.


In Switzerland, the issue of repatriation is regularly discussed. It was raised for example last spring in Geneva, when the city’s Pâquis district experienced a crime wave that was led mainly by Algerian nationals.

While a repatriation agreement with Algeria has existed since 2006, the country is apparently in no hurry to sign an additional protocol that would permit actual deportations, as a report by Swiss television recently showed.

In the case of Nigeria, a spokesman for the Federal Migration Office, Marie Avet, says "cooperation is working very well", but Switzerland "hopes to consolidate cooperation in the field of migration". A hope that du Bois-Reymond would have most certainly communicated to the ambassador of Nigeria, Ihoeghian Martin Uhomoibhi, when they met in Geneva recently.

To date Switzerland has signed 47 repatriation agreements. Most of the signatories are European countries bound by the Schengen/Dublin Agreement, which enables Switzerland to take part in European security and asylum cooperation.

Bern has also signed a technical agreement on re-admittance with three African countries, Guinea, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone, “which works well”, according to Avet.

Questions asked

The fact remains that parties on the left and right sides of the political spectrum want to see the number of repatriation agreements increase.

During the December 2009 parliamentary session, several rightwing MPs raised questions to clarify the situation. Among them was Jean-Pierre Grin of the Swiss People’s Party, the party which has won many votes for its hardline stance on immigration.

"We realise that some countries have signed these agreements, but they do not comply with them, either because they do not agree to take citizens back, or because they refuse to play the role of transit countries," Grin said. The People’s Party says pressure should therefore be stepped up, for example by linking repatriation to development aid.

The Migration Office has sought to reassure the public. "Cooperation in repatriation works well with most countries and preparatory discussions have been opened with many others," said a spokesman.

In fact, Switzerland, like the European Union, already practises a carrot and stick policy. If a repatriation agreement becomes difficult to finalise, then it seeks to conclude a migration partnership with the country, which is aimed at finding constructive solutions to challenges posed by migration and creating synergies between the different players involved.

Officially, these partnerships would involve, for example, a financial commitment that would be used to support reintegration measures on the ground or the immigration authorities of a given country.

Unofficially, however it can also result in other self-serving demands from government officials, such as access to the Swiss labour market for certain individuals.

In any case, negotiations are never easy, as the government admitted in response to a question by the centre-right Radicals parliamentarian Isabelle Moret: "The implementation of repatriation and immigration agreements require intense dialogue with the state concerned, which permits better understanding of the interests of the other party."

Protect the vulnerable

To date, three of these migration partnerships have been signed with the Balkan states Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo, where Bern has a particular interest in being able to deport nationals. In the case of Kosovo, however, which has a significant diaspora in Switzerland, the Swiss Refugee Council has sounded the alarm.

Although the council is not opposed to the principle behind repatriation agreements, which it views positively on the whole, it warned against mass deportations.

"It is very important that repatriation procedures remain fair and that the safety of vulnerable people such as women and children is taken into account,” said spokesman Adrian Hauser. He said decisions had to be made on a case-by-case basis.

At a time when support teeters in parliament for a project to counter a People’s Party initiative requiring the deportation of foreign criminals, the question of repatriation does not look likely to go away.

Carole Wälti, (Adapted from French by Jessica Dacey)

Asylum in 2009

In 2009, 16,005 people applied for asylum in Switzerland - 601 fewer requests than the year before.

For the first time, most applications (1,786) came from citizens of Nigeria - 798 more than a year earlier (80.8% rise).

The chance of obtaining asylum in Switzerland is slim for the Nigerians. Of the total applications in 2009, only one was accepted and six Nigerians were given temporary admission.

Other countries from which a significant number of asylum applicants came in 2009 were Eritrea (1,724 applications), Sri Lanka (1,415), Iraq (935), Somalia (753), Afghanistan (751) and Kosovo (694).

In 2009, 7,272 people left Swiss territory by air. Their main destinations were Serbia, Nigeria, Albania and Georgia. In total, 1,739 people left independently. The remaining 5,533 left as part of a controlled repatriation procedure, escorted to flights or until their destination by police or on a special flight.

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Customary international law sets out an obligation for each state to readmit its own citizens.

In general, states have conformed to this practice. But in recent years, some states have shown some reluctance when it comes to accepting their own nationals back.

To fight against illegal migration, Switzerland signed repatriation agreements with neighbouring countries from 1950-1960.

To respond to changing migration patterns, it has sought since the early 1990s to apply this approach with migrants’ countries of origin or transit countries.

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