The right to asylum in Switzerland will shortly be the topic of another referendum. This time rightwingers are fighting an amendment of the legislation which aims to speed up the procedure for evaluating applications and to reduce costs.
Switzerland’s legislation on political asylum seems like a complex piece of machinery that is always being adjusted and tinkered with. Since the initial legislation was passed in 1981, the Swiss law on asylum has been subjected to a dozen amendments, about one every three years, and has been put to no less than five nationwide votes.
Beginning in the 1990s, demands for toughening of the legislation have come from the Swiss People’s Party, which has made the refugee problem a priority issue in election campaigns. In recent times the conservative right party has won more and more support from the centre parties.
The left, on the other hand, has invoked the humanitarian tradition of Switzerland in opposing any further restriction to the legislation on asylum – and it has often used referendums to do so.
The June vote therefore presents an unusual scenario: it is the first time an amendment to the legislation is supported by the left and opposed by a referendum from the right.
“All changes so far have only served to restrict the right to asylum,” explains Social Democrat Cesla Amarelle.
“But this time parliament has approved changes that will mean greater legal protection for those applying for refugee status, and improvements in the processing of applications. For this reason, the left is supporting the latest amendment,” she says.
The amendment of the legislation, passed by parliament last year, aims to speed up the procedure for granting or refusing political asylum, reducing times taken for deportation where the decision is negative, and for integration into the labour market of persons authorised to stay.
In future, simpler procedures – for cases which need no particular verification steps or which come under the jurisdiction of another state signatory to the Dublin agreement – should not take more than 140 days on average, as compared to 400 days at the moment.
More complex procedures – where there are appeals, say – should not take longer than a year; they now take about two years.
To ensure that in future inquiry procedures remain thorough and fair while streamlining the process, applicants for refugee status will benefit right from the start from free legal advice and representation if need be.
In a trial run of the new system, held in 2014 in a centre in Zurich, it was found that the duration of the process was reduced by 39% and the number of appeals was reduced by 33%. The number of voluntary repatriations tripled.
To make this new amendment work, there will have to be a greater concentration of powers. The simpler procedures (about 60% of cases) will in future be dealt with in new reception centres run by the federal government and staffed by federal officials along with translators, lawyers and repatriation advisors.
With these new centres the government expects to be able to accommodate about 5,000 people, as compared to the 1,400 places it presently has available.
For the more complex procedures, asylum applicants are to be housed, as before, in centres run by the country’s 26 cantons.
Invitation to come to Switzerland?
The government estimates that more than CHF500 million ($524 million) will be needed for this adjustment of the refugee determination process.
In the middle term, the change will bring savings of over CHF200 million a year for the federal and cantonal governments.
The proposed amendment was supported at the outset by all the major parties.
Last year, however, during the parliamentary debates, the People’s Party took a different line, maintaining that the changes would be unhelpful and counterproductive.
In September, a few days after the bill had passed through parliament, the party launched a referendum to oppose it and collected 65,000 signatures.
Free legal advice
“This amendment was proposed in 2011 when asylum requests were about half of what they have been in the past year and when the Dublin agreement was working more or less,” says Albert Rösti, a leading People’s Party parliamentarian.
“But now, while other European countries are closing their borders, Switzerland wants to add to its capacity to receive refugee applicants. This amounts to an open invitation for people to come here, whereas we should be looking for solutions for rejecting or repatriating the so-called economic refugees, who constitute most of the asylum seekers in Switzerland.”
The first asylum law dates back to 1981 and was considered very liberal. Before asylum matters were part of the law on foreigners. Over the years the asylum law was gradually tightened in partial amendments or comprehensive overhauls. So far, voters have approved four reforms in 1987, 1999, 2006 and 2013. However, a waver-thin majority of voters (50.1%) rejected an initiative by the Swiss People’s Party against “abuses of the asylum system”.
The party is also against introduction of free legal advice.
“We think it completely wrong that all refugee applicants be assigned a lawyer for free. This would be a right that even Swiss don’t have, and it would go against the principle of equality laid down in the Constitution”, says Rösti.
Support from cantons and local councils
The criticism is rejected by the Social Democrats’ Amarelle.
“This is untrue. All citizens have the right to free legal representation if they have not got the financial means.
“When it comes to refugee applicants, legal representation is essential as they often do not know anything about our legal system and do not know how a refugee determination process works. This way they will be able to understand the ruling on their application, even if it turns out to be negative. This will reduce the number of appeals,” she argues.
People’s Party criticism of the revamped legislation also focuses on the fact that the government could in future locate new refugee centres in federal buildings and sites without getting the prior approval of the cantons or local councils involved.
If necessary, they could do it by expropriation.
“Here the government is giving itself new expropriation powers that go against our legal system. Refugee issues can’t be solved by walking over the rights of citizens or the autonomy of cantons and local governments,” says Rösti.
“We do not share these objections, given that the new amendment of asylum law was approved unanimously by representatives of the cantons and local governments at a national conference held in 2014,” responds Amarelle.
“To implement this amendment, which is in fact in the interests of the cantons and local authorities, the government needs to be able to have reception centres on hand where the refugee inquiries can be held,” she adds.
Wave of migration
About 1.4 million people requested asylum in European countries during last year’s historical refugee crisis in the Middle East. This is twice as many as in 2014. In Switzerland, 39,523 asylum requests were recorded in 2015, an increase of 66.3% on the previous year.
Asylum requests in Switzerland accounted for 3% of the total number in Europe last year – the lowest figure in 20 years. In 2012, the Swiss share was 8.2%.
Compared with the number of residents in Switzerland (8.2 million), the country was among the top seven destinations. In 2015, 4.9 requests per 1,000 Swiss residents were lodged, while the European average is 2.9 requests per 1,000 residents.
Asylum seekers from Eritrea were the biggest group (9,966), ahead of people from Afghanistan (7,831), Syria (4,745), Iraq (2,388), Sri Lanka (1,878), Somalia (1,253) and Nigeria (970).
Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee, swissinfo.ch