Swiss repatriation treaty condemned by NGOs

Justice minister Ruth Metzler held talks in Senegal on Wednesday Keystone

Human rights groups in Africa have criticised a Swiss agreement with Senegal aimed at speeding up the expulsion of asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected.

This content was published on January 7, 2003 - 19:03

Two non-govermental organisations (NGOs) called the initiative an insult to West Africans.

The criticism came during a visit to Senegal by the Swiss justice minister, Ruth Metzler, to wrap up the deal - the first of its kind with an African country.

It would allow Switzerland to deport to Senegal rejected West African asylum seekers who refuse to declare their true identities.

After holding talks on Wednesday with the Senegalese prime minister, Idrissa Seck, Metzler announced that the two sides had agreed to proceed with the agreement.

She said the Senegalese government would sign a "memorandum of understanding", signalling its intent to ratify the accord later in the year.

The delay in signing the treaty came after the Senegalese parliament demanded more time to examine the document, which has been roundly condemned by the West African Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons Network and the African Union for the Defence of Human Rights.

They have accused the West of treating West African countries as dumping grounds for asylum seekers.

They said development aid was used to coerce governments in the region.

The Swiss Refugee Council has also expressed reservations about the accord, saying the identification process could be done in Switzerland.

Logical place

But the Federal Refugee Office insists repatriations to West Africa cannot be effectively handled in Switzerland, and that Senegal is the logical place to carry out the process.

"It is important that we work with a country that has a Swiss embassy present, and this is the only country [in the region] where there is one," Jean-Daniel Gerber, director of the Federal Refugee Office, told swissinfo.

"There are many [West African] countries which do not have any representatives in Switzerland. That means it is better to do the paperwork in the region itself."

Under the agreement, officials have 72 hours to determine the identity of the asylum seeker. If they cannot, the Swiss will be required to bring the asylum seeker back to Switzerland.

Gerber said one of the main advantages of conducting the process in Senegal was that "it is fairly easy for the authorities in West Africa to determine where a person comes from."

Targeting Africans

The Swiss government has been criticised for targeting Africans under the new policy. But Gerber denies this is the case, stating that Switzerland is simply tightening the asylum procedure for all asylum seekers.

"We always act according to priorities. Two years ago Kosovo-Albanians were the priority while last year the Romas were the priority," he said.

"This year some Africans are the priority. But this is just a question of numbers - where the increase is the biggest."

Slow process

Speeding up the processing of African asylum seekers has been one of Metzler's concerns.

Late last year she ordered the Federal Refugee Office to give priority to processing applications from asylum seekers from a number of African countries, including Nigeria, Angola and Sierra Leone.

Before wrapping up her trip on Friday, Metzler is also due to sign a reciprocal agreement with Nigeria to repatriate citizens who no longer have the legal right to remain in Switzerland.

The agreements with both Senegal and Nigeria were passed by the Swiss parliament on December 20.


Key facts

In 2001, 20,633 people sought asylum in Switzerland.
This represents a 17.2 per cent increase from the previous year.
Last November the Swiss narrowly rejected an initiative to tighten asylum laws.

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