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Why a controversial Chinese-Swiss agreement has been left to expire

The two countries have been on a path of deepening bilateral relations, including several high-level visits from both parties, since signing a memorandum of understanding in 2007. Keystone / Alessandro Della Valle

The Swiss government has put on hold a deal that allowed agents from China to come to Switzerland to identify Chinese nationals, following public outcry and pressure from various groups. But questions about the nature and purpose of the arrangement continue to dog migration officials. 

This content was published on December 18, 2020 - 11:00

Under the terms agreed by the two countries in late 2015, Chinese security officials could enter the country for two weeks – at Swiss expense – to establish the nationality of irregular migrants assumed to be Chinese who had received a deportation order.

The agreement caused an uproar when its existence was revealedExternal link last August by the newspaper NZZ am Sonntag. A number of parliamentarians deplored China’s human rights record and called for the agreement not to be renewed, because it was unclear what would happen to deportees after their return to China. A group of Swiss residents originally from Hong Kong made similar pleas in a letter to justice minister Karin Keller-Sutter and the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM).

The SEM, which concluded the arrangement with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, confirmed in a statement last week that it is no longer in force, having expired on December 7.

“We have not yet discussed [renewing the deal] concretely with China,” spokesperson Daniel Bach told news agency Keystone-SDA. “It is not our top priority.”

Treatment of returnees

Amnesty International Switzerland’s spokesperson Nadia Boehlen says that her organisation also expressed its concerns in writing to the migration secretariat.

“We welcome the fact that the deal has not been renewed,” she said. “As long as China does not offer guarantees about the treatment of people [who are returned], it should not be signed.”

According to the SEM, only one Chinese visit took place under the agreement. Two Chinese officials were invited to Switzerland in 2016, a year in which a total of 13 people were returned to China from the Alpine country. Spokesperson Emmanuelle Jaquet von Sury emphasised in an email that it is Switzerland, and not China, that ultimately decides who is deported.

The foreign policy committee of the House of Representatives decided in October that it should be consulted before the agreement can be prolonged. Although any final decision rests with the Federal Council (executive branch), one expert says it’s a sign that the context surrounding the deal has changed.

“It’s my understanding that the agreement has been put on ice due to the increasing discontent in the media and among the general public about China’s treatment of dissidents and violations of human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong,” said Simona Grano, a senior lecturer in Greater China Studies at the University of Zurich.

Prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong was among those who publicly criticised the Swiss-China arrangement in August. This month he was jailed in Hong Kong for organising an illegal demonstration. Protests on the island territory flared ahead of the introduction this past June of a national security law that has led to numerous arrests and raids.

Concern among rights groups has also grown in recent months following revelations about the treatment of ethnic minority Uighurs in the province of Xinjiang.

“The SEM has assured us that Uighurs and Tibetans are excluded [from the Chinese-Swiss arrangement],” said Amnesty’s Boehlen. “But people from Hong Kong can be persecuted under this new security law. That’s very problematic.”

Mariagiulia Giuffré, a senior lecturer in law at Edge Hill University in the United Kingdom, agreed that the guarantee concerning Uighurs and Tibetans “is not enough, as many other persons might have a reasonable fear to return to China”.

In its statement, the SEM reiterated that only those “who do not face persecution on return to their country of origin” can be interviewed by Chinese officials. But “for reasons of sovereignty”, the Swiss migration office does not keep track of what happens to those who are deported, according to Jaquet von Sury.

Secret agents at work?

Last week, human rights group Safeguard Defenders published a report in which it picked apart the text of the deal and claimed the Swiss government had engaged in a cover-up. The group questioned the need to invite foreign agents to the country – presumably under tourist visas – who would then have had access to the whole Schengen area.

“What they do during that two weeks is completely unsupervised,” Safeguard Defenders director Peter Dahlin told The Guardian newspaper. “If this was kept secret, that means other governments wouldn’t know.”

The SEM rejected accusations of a secret deal and likened the agreement with China to its “60 or so” agreements with other countries on the removal of foreign nationals.

Giuffré said the China deal appeared to be “an informal cooperation arrangement […] linked to readmission”, rather than a standard readmission agreement, which is an international accord usually made public.

Informal agreements “do not generally contain safeguards for refugees and are also not subjected to public scrutiny, parliamentary debate and monitoring,” added the legal expert, who recently published a book on readmission of asylum seekers.

According to the arrangement, the identity of the agents selected by China and allowed into Switzerland “without official status” does not need to be disclosed to the Swiss, a provision Guiffré said was problematic under international human rights law.

Grano pointed out that cooperation on removals normally goes through embassies. Switzerland’s agreement with India, for example, outlines how the two countries can make requests for verifying Indian nationals’ identities through their diplomatic representations.

But according to Jaquet von Sury at the SEM, Switzerland has about 20 other arrangements with similar provisions to those of the China deal. Even in the absence of a bilateral agreement, she added, foreign delegations can still be invited to conduct interviews under the Swiss law on deportation.

“Readmission deals are a regular part of international law, but the secrecy surrounding the Sino-Swiss agreement and the kind of leeway and discretionary power left to the agents of the Ministry of Public Security […] seems, at the very least, skewed in terms of benefits towards China,” said Grano.

China’s public security ministry is the country’s main law enforcement body and houses the state immigration administration, she explained.

A spokesperson for the foreign affairs ministry in Beijing told AFP news agency that reports circulating about the deal with Switzerland “are a misrepresentation of the facts” and that other European countries had similar arrangements with China.

Renewing the controversial agreement

Whether the Alpine country will now renew its deal with China remains unclear. SEM spokesperson Daniel Bach told the NZZ that the Federal Council would “first wait for discussions in parliament”, adding that the agreement was “in Switzerland’s interest in principle”.

For Grano, the scope for a renewal “is shrinking by the day”. The 2015 deal was struck just two years after the two countries signed a much-trumpeted free trade accord. Today, China is Switzerland’s third-largest trading partner. The two countries have been on a path of deepening bilateral relations, including several high-level visits from both parties, since signing a memorandum of understanding in 2007.

“[This deal] was probably done in goodwill and with a pinch of naiveté on the Swiss side,” said the China expert.

Now Switzerland will need to balance “the need to safeguard business ties with China [and] the mounting criticism about China’s international and domestic behaviour […] without forsaking its democratic values,” she added.

Boehlen too believes the country finds itself in a “delicate” situation with the Asian superpower. But the bottom line for Amnesty is that any future deal should not be secret.

“Switzerland is entitled to sign readmission agreements, but the authorities have to ensure there won’t be any more secret Chinese agents, and that the agreements are in line with human rights,” she said.

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