Canton Vaud has said it will “as a last resort” forcibly remove more than 500 asylum seekers whose residency applications have been rejected.
Vaud has come under pressure from the federal authorities in Bern to fall into line with other cantons and ensure that those without permits are not allowed to stay.
Thursday’s announcement came in response to a resolution adopted by parliamentarians in canton Vaud calling on the regional authorities not to remove rejected asylum seekers by force.
But the government said in its response that there were no legal grounds for granting them permission to stay.
“The government [of canton Vaud] reaffirms its commitment… to remove those who do not have temporary resident status. If necessary, and as a last resort, this will be done by force.”
Vaud is the only canton in Switzerland which has until now not followed instructions issued by the federal authorities to expel rejected asylum seekers.
In its resolution submitted to the cantonal government, Vaud parliamentarians said those who remained in the canton illegally should not simply be thrown out.
“A significant number of these people… could suffer a traumatic experience if they are expelled,” read the resolution.
“There are women from Kosovo, survivors of the  Srebrenica massacre and families with young children who have until now lived all their lives in our country.”
The resolution added that it would be “inhumane” to remove them by force.
Falling into line
Jean Martin, the parliamentarian from the centre-right Radical Party who tabled the resolution, admitted that canton Vaud could not continue to be the exception to the rule.
“Vaud has to fall into line with the other cantons and the federal government in Bern when it comes to asylum. But that doesn’t mean that we should turn our backs on people who have been protected by the canton,” Martin told swissinfo.
"The decision… is doubtless perfectly legal. But it is also profoundly unjust.”
Vaud’s cantonal government has for several years shown itself to be reluctant to expel all rejected asylum seekers.
Claude Ruey, in charge of asylum issues in the canton during the 1990s, said the authorities had never hesitated to expel those whose applications could be immediately turned down.
But he told swissinfo that the canton had traditionally tried to find a “humane” way of dealing with asylum seekers whose requests were more complex and which could not be resolved quickly by the federal authorities.
“Also, the criteria for granting asylum applications on humanitarian grounds were constantly being tightened as a result of pressure from the rightwing Swiss People’s Party,” said Ruey.
Canton Vaud has a long tradition of offering humanitarian assistance and a number of organisations – including a legal aid service – have been established to help asylum seekers.
But parliamentarians cried foul in May, when the cantonal government signed an accord with the federal authorities aimed at resolving the fate of 1,280 people living in the canton illegally. Around 700 of them have since obtained residency permits.
But the authorities said they would not reassess the applications of just over 500 others, who have been given a ten-day extended deadline to register for repatriation programmes or face expulsion from the canton.
Denis-Olivier Maillefer, a Social Democrat parliamentarian in canton Vaud, admits that nothing more can be done to challenge the government’s decision.
But Martin of the Radical Party says the campaign to stop the government from removing those who are living illegally in the canton had served a purpose.
“By standing up against these measures to remove people, we have shown our determination to distance ourselves from [the policies of] the People’s Party,” he said.
swissinfo, Frédéric Burnand in Geneva
Canton Vaud says it will forcibly remove more than 500 rejected asylum seekers if they do not voluntarily sign up for repatriation programmes.
Just under 400 of those who have been refused permission to stay come from the former Yugoslavia.
The cantonal parliament had tabled a resolution urging the government in Vaud not to enforce the letter of the law.