Swiss refugee policy under scrutiny

UNHCR 50th anniversary graphic: Dec 2000.

In relation to its size, Switzerland takes in more refugees than any other country in Western Europe. But human rights groups such as Amnesty International believe the Swiss could do more.

This content was published on December 14, 2000 minutes

Switzerland's relationship with refugees has always been something of a paradox. Despite its long humanitarian tradition, most recent attention has focused on its conduct during the Second World War, when it refused entry to thousands of Jews and Gypsies in the knowledge that they would be sent to the Nazi death camps.

Today the situation has changed, with Switzerland taking in a disproportionately high number of refugees. This figure has been falling in the past year, thanks to the voluntary repatriation of Kosovars who came to stay with relatives in Switzerland at the height of the conflict in their homeland.

"Today, I think refugees in Switzerland are well treated. The situation is no better and no worse than any other country in Western Europe," says Alain Bovard, of the Swiss branch of Amnesty International.

"But there are many improvements that could be made at a legal level and at a practical level, especially when we see how people are expelled from Switzerland," Bovard told swissinfo.

Many of the recent criticisms of Swiss asylum policy have centred on the deportation of people who have had their asylum requests turned down.

For example, the government has refused to halt forced repatriations to Sri Lanka and Iraq; it has been deporting African asylum seekers to Cameroon, regardless of their nationality; and police at Zurich airport have been using what Amnesty calls "cruel, degrading and dangerous" methods of restraint on deportees. In the worst case, a Palestinian died on a plane after being gagged.

"Such methods should not be allowed," Bovard says. "The main problem is that it is not the federal authorities that are in charge of the expulsions, but the cantonal bodies. There's no coordination. We need some kind of federal guidelines."

Bovard also complains about the deportation of people to countries such as India, which are on the Swiss list of safe countries, but where the returnee could still be at risk.

And it is not only those being deported who face problems. Asylum seekers often face a daunting experience when they arrive in Switzerland.

"They arrive here tired and often unable to speak the language," says Isabelle Uehlinger, a lawyer with the Swiss branch of the International Social Centre, who is often on hand to help newly arrived asylum seekers.

"They are in a state of shock because it is often the first time they have been abroad. They are confronted with new rules and regulations. It is not easy for them."

Asylum seekers are taken to one of four federal registration centres, where they are fingerprinted, photographed and questioned about their motives for coming to Switzerland.

After this, they are sent to one of the cantons. They have no choice about where they are placed unless they already have relatives in Switzerland. Sometimes this can be done insensitively, with French-speaking refugees being sent to German-speaking cantons.

They then undergo a second, more detailed interview to determine whether they should be allowed to stay. Sometimes the federal refugee office will hold a third interview in complicated cases.

"Often the procedure is very long. I have clients who have waiting for several years," Uehlinger told swissinfo.

"These people should be given the chance to recover, to find some stability. But with these endless procedures, it's difficult to face the future, not knowing if you'll be allowed to stay of forced to return. Many people develop serious psychological problems because of this," she says.

Uehlinger says she would like to see a more flexible approach from the authorities. "I believe the Swiss want to do good. They want to find out everything they can about a case, but sometimes they go too far. We have had a number of people who we believed had watertight cases, but their requests were rejected because of an approach that was too logical."

It is not just the legal problems that makes life difficult for refugees. Many find it hard to settle down. They are prevented from looking for work for three months, after which they will usually end up with the kind of jobs that the Swiss would refuse to do. Otherwise they are paid a meagre sum of just over SFr400 ($232) a month.

"It's important to be made to feel welcome, and that is not always the case," Uehlinger says. "A lot depends on the place in which they end up. But they often feel very isolated, especially those that suffered real problems before leaving."

It does not help that many people single foreigners out, often unfairly, as being responsible for crime and illicit working. But groups which help refugees say they believe the tide is turning; that, with its declining birth rate, Switzerland has realised it needs more foreigners.

"I think the Swiss authorities realise that a lot of people are going to stay, and they've realised they have to work with that, and be less restrictive" Uehlinger says.

by Roy Probert

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