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Swiss vote could turn genuine refugees away, warns UNHCR

News Stories, 5 November 2002

© UNHCR/C.Black
This asylum registration centre in Geneva may be rendered obsolete if Switzerland adopts a restrictive asylum system under the November 24 initiative.

GENEVA, November 5 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency today warned that a controversial initiative and its "highly misleading" accompanying campaign could transform Switzerland's asylum system into one of the most restrictive in the industrialised world and result in genuine refugees not having their claims heard at all.

On November 24, the Swiss electorate will go to the polls to vote for or against the controversial initiative put forward by one of the country's political parties, the Swiss People's Party. If voted into law, it will establish a list of supposedly safe countries presumably including all of Switzerland's neighbours. Anyone who has passed through such a country will then be summarily rejected without his or her case being heard. The initiative also proposes that most of the asylum seekers who remain in Switzerland should 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 UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers in a press statement Tuesday. "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, who heads the Europe Bureau at the Geneva-based UN refugee agency, noted that such practice would put the onus of determining the authenticity of a claim on neighbouring countries, which are unlikely to accept such a radical and unilateral action by Switzerland as they themselves also receive varying numbers of asylum seekers.

"Based on such an unsound premise, the initiative is likely to produce more problems than it solves," he said. "It is clearly against the spirit of international law and may undermine current efforts in Europe and elsewhere to improve and harmonise asylum systems, both for the benefit of refugees and for the states hosting them."

Recognising that Switzerland's asylum system could be used by economic migrants to enter its labour market a problem faced by other Western European countries as well UNHCR said it supports serious efforts to reduce the misuse of the system as long as it does not compromise the protection of many genuine refugees who arrive in Switzerland every year.

The refugee agency cited the Swiss government's new DUO procedure as one such effort that deserves support. Under this procedure, the authorities at Swiss reception centres should be able to quickly identify and reject applicants whose asylum claims are abusive or clearly unfounded within 15 days of their arrival in Switzerland. At the same time, it does not sacrifice an individual's fundamental right to seek asylum and have his or her claim heard.

However, if the Swiss electorate vote "yes" to the November 24 initiative, the DUO procedure, which was introduced in August, 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."

Besides rejecting potential refugees, the November 24 initiative also recommends 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.

But such measures contradict the initiative's declared aim of reducing crime by asylum seekers, countered UNHCR. Instead, such measures would most likely have the opposite effect, encouraging crime by forcing refugees and their families to survive on only a minimal subsistence allowance while remaining in a legal limbo. This is especially true for those who have not been accepted into any other country's asylum system, but are still unable to lodge a claim in Switzerland.

The UN refugee agency also strongly criticised 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."

He elaborated, "The 'Yes' campaign suggests that most of the asylum seekers coming to Switzerland are deliberate abusers of the system. 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 November 24 initiative has virtually no safeguards at all," warned Hall. "But it is cleverly presented. 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."

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