The government has postponed the deadline by which refugees belonging to ethnic minorities in Kosovo must return home. The extension comes amid concerns that these groups face persecution at the hands of the majority ethnic Albanian population.
The decision to extend the deadline until August 31 was agreed at a national asylum conference between federal and cantonal officials. It applies mainly to Roma and Serb asylum seekers.
The justice minister, Ruth Metzler, said the delay was a precautionary measure. "Although we don't think they face serious danger, the possibility of these groups being harmed cannot be ruled out.
She added "the situation in Kosovo is changing day by day, so we will reassess things at the end of August."
The decision is expected to affect only a few hundred refugees. The vast majority is still required to leave Switzerland by the deadline of May 31 or face forcible repatriation. The Swiss Federal Office for Refugees estimates that around 16,500 Kosovar asylum seekers will stay beyond the deadline, and thus face being sent home against their will.
Some cantonal officials are unhappy that the extension of the deadline was not granted to other potentially vulnerable groups, such as single mothers, and abandoned children.
"I would have preferred a group solution for these people too," said Ruth Luethi, director of social services for canton Fribourg. "I hope that they will examine these cases very seriously, and not send people back who cannot survive in Kosovo."
The Federal Office for Refugees has promised to assess vulnerable individuals on a case-by-case basis. Director Jean-Daniel said this is often the best way.
"Group decisions can be very unfair,' said Gerber. "If we decide women, or old women as a group are vulnerable, then vulnerable old men get left out. It's much better to do this individually."
The national conference also agreed to let yet young Kosovars finish training courses and apprenticeships that they have begun in Switzerland. Families with school age children will also be allowed to remain until the summer term ends.
"I'm really pleased at the spirit of cooperation we have seen at this conference," said Justice Minister Ruth Metzler. "We are all agreed on the May 31 deadline. It's really a good feeling to know we can work with the cantons in this way."
But now that the principles of forcible repatriation have been decided on, the practical details will have to be sorted out. This will fall to the cantons, because the federal officials have made it clear they don't want to be involved.
"It's not a job for us," said Jean-Daniel Gerber. "Why should it be? Only the local officials know the details of who is where, and so on. It's not the role of a bureaucrat in Berne to tell the locals how to do this."
The practical details remain extremely sketchy. At present, the justice minister, Ruth Metzler is unable to say whether flights have been booked for the estimated 50-100 Kosovars who will be leaving Switzerland each week from the start of June.
"I can't possibly confirm that," she said. "We have to wait for the cantons to tell us how many forcible repatriations they have. But I can give assurances that the government is prepared."
by Imogen Foulkes