Lubbers says Swiss vote may result in total rejection of refugees
5 November 2002
GENEVA - The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, said on Tuesday he was concerned that an initiative to alter Switzerland's asylum legislation, if voted into law on 24 November, would transform the country's asylum system into one of the most restrictive in the industrialized world. A senior official at the UN refugee agency also criticized the campaign in support of the initiative as "highly misleading."
The initiative has been put forward by one of Switzerland's political parties, the Swiss People's Party. Key elements include establishing a list of supposedly safe countries - which would presumably include all of Switzerland's neighbours - and then summarily rejecting anyone who has passed through such a country. In addition, it is proposed that most of the asylum seekers who remain in Switzerland would receive the barest minimum of assistance.
"If the Swiss people vote 'Yes' to this initiative, the result will be that any refugee who arrives in Switzerland overland will be rejected outright - however well-founded his or her claim might be," said Lubbers. "Since the great majority of refugees arriving in Switzerland come overland, this means the country will have more or less shut its doors to people fleeing persecution - even people who have escaped atrocities, massacres or torture."
Raymond Hall, a senior official at the UN refugee agency, which has its world headquarters in Switzerland, said that such practice would, in effect, transfer the responsibility of determining the authenticity of a claim to neighbouring countries, without any prior guarantee that those countries would cooperate.
Hall, Director of UNHCR's Europe Bureau, pointed out that Switzerland's neighbours, which themselves also receive varying numbers of asylum seekers, were unlikely simply to accept such a radical and unilateral action by Switzerland. "Based on such an unsound premise, the initiative is likely to produce more problems than it solves," he said.
UNHCR recognizes that a number of people attempt to use the asylum system as a means to gain access to Switzerland's labour market - a problem also encountered in other Western Europe countries - and supports serious efforts to reduce such misuse of the system, providing it does not compromise the protection of the many genuine and deserving refugees who arrive in Switzerland each year.
UNHCR believes that the Swiss Government's new DUO procedure, which has been in effect since August, is one such effort that deserves support. Under the DUO procedure, the authorities at Swiss reception centres should be able to quickly identify and exclude applicants whose asylum claims are abusive or clearly unfounded within 15 days of their arrival in Switzerland, while at the same time not sacrificing an individual's fundamental right to seek asylum and have his or her claim heard. However, if the Swiss electorate vote "yes" to the 24 November initiative, the DUO procedure will be made redundant even before it has had a chance to produce results.
"According to UNHCR guidelines, refusing to hear asylum seekers' claims simply because of the route they have taken is unacceptable," said Lubbers. "No other European country has gone that far. I would find it extremely worrying if Switzerland, with its strong humanitarian tradition, were to transform itself into the most unwelcoming country to refugees in Europe."
The initiative also includes recommendations that asylum seekers who still remain in Switzerland - apparently including those not accepted back by neighbouring countries - should be denied access to the labour market and receive the bare minimum of accommodation and food rations. According to UNHCR, such measures contradict the declared aim of reducing crime by asylum seekers. Instead, such measures would most likely have the opposite effect of encouraging crime by forcing refugees and their families - especially those not accepted into any other country's asylum system but still unable to lodge a claim in Switzerland - to survive on only a minimal subsistence allowance while remaining in a legal limbo.
UNHCR also strongly criticized the tone and content of the campaign in support of the initiative.
"The Swiss people are being asked to vote on the basis of a highly misleading presentation of the initiative," said Hall. "It is being put forward as a ground-breaking means to combat drug trafficking and crime by seriously restricting access both to Switzerland and its asylum procedure."
"The "Yes" campaign suggests that most of the asylum seekers coming to Switzerland are deliberate abusers of the system," he said. "It also implies that a large proportion of them are mixed up in crime and that they are heavily involved in the drug trade - which is a major exaggeration."
"Anyone involved in the drug trade should be arrested and prosecuted, whether they're from Sierra Leone or Basel," he added. "This is a matter for criminal law, not asylum legislation."
A number of modifications contained in the government's proposed revision of the asylum law, currently before the Swiss parliament, are aimed at tightening asylum procedures. The draft law nevertheless contains a number of safeguards to protect refugees, while removing some of the opportunities for people to misuse the system. "The 24 November initiative has virtually no safeguards at all," said Hall.
"The initiative is cleverly presented," said Hall. "On the surface, if you do not know the likely impact - both on the individuals and on Switzerland's relations with neighbouring states - a lot of it sounds quite reasonable. It is not. The initiative and its supporting campaign identify problems but do not offer any realistic means of solving them. In addition, this initiative is clearly against the spirit of international law and may undermine current efforts in Europe and elsewhere to improve and harmonize asylum systems, both for the benefit of refugees and for the States hosting them."