Proposed revisions could restrict access to Swiss asylum process, warns UNHCR

News Stories, 27 July 2004

© UNHCR/C.Black
Under the new proposals, access to the Swiss asylum system may be restricted for these asylum seekers at a Swiss reception centre.

GENEVA, July 27 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has written to the Swiss Federal Office for Refugees to raise concerns about new proposals to modify Swiss asylum law that could restrict access to the asylum process and lead to breaches of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

UNHCR announced on Tuesday that it had submitted to the Swiss authorities comments and suggestions on the new proposals with the aim of contributing positively to the process of drawing up new legislation that both served the interests of Switzerland and safeguarded established international standards designed to protect refugees.

"The proposals appear to be made at a time when the number of asylum seekers has dropped sharply across almost all of Europe, including Switzerland," said the UN agency in a press statement. "There appears to be no need for governments to focus so single-mindedly on restrictive revisions of their asylum laws."

While recognising the need for efficient asylum systems, UNHCR noted that in the Swiss context, efforts to achieve efficiency should not be at the cost of principles of fairness.

"Some of the proposals made by the Federal Office for Refugees are focused on restricting access to the asylum procedure, and this risks running counter to the spirit and the letter of the 1951 Convention," said UNHCR. The agency suggested a number of measures to increase efficiency while ensuring asylum seekers can still gain access to a fair system.

Under the proposed modifications, asylum seekers must submit valid travel or identity documents within 48 hours in order to gain access to a normal asylum procedure. This restriction could lead to breaches of the 1951 Convention.

"Many refugees are not able to obtain national passports or identity papers before fleeing their homeland. If they are being persecuted by the authorities, they cannot go to those same authorities to request the necessary documents," explained UNHCR. "In some countries people may never even have been issued such documents, or they may have been confiscated or destroyed. In other cases, the documents of genuine refugees entering Europe are either stolen or destroyed by the smuggling networks into whose clutches they have fallen."

On the introduction of the concept of humanitarian status, UNHCR has welcomed the move as a way to fill an existing gap in the asylum system. However, the proposed revision recommends granting humanitarian status only to people who can present certain identity documents. This would prevent deserving asylum seekers (including people fleeing war or generalised violence) who do not fall under the strict definition of the 1951 UN Convention from receiving adequate international protection.

"UNHCR fully recognises the principle that asylum seekers should cooperate with the authorities in the host country, as mentioned in Article 31 of the 1951 UN Convention," said the statement. "They should, however, be afforded an opportunity to have their claim heard. A lack of documentation could under certain circumstances call into question the credibility of the asylum seeker, when examining the claim on its merits."

Another point of contention is a proposal to share data with the asylum seeker's country of origin after a first instance decision. According to UNHCR, such information-sharing should only be permitted when it is definitively determined that a person does not have a genuine fear of persecution in his or her country of origin in other words after the completion of the asylum procedure, including appeals. Otherwise, there is an increased possibility that the asylum seeker or family members could be put at risk.

At the regional level, "the challenges to migration and asylum systems in Europe are multi-faceted and will require a global approach over the coming years. They cannot be resolved in isolation," said the UN agency, noting that more resources must be allocated to crisis areas, either to prevent fledgling conflicts spinning out of control, or to provide support to major refugee-hosting countries in the region.

The agency also stressed that more attention needs to be paid to establishing regular migration channels that would undercut the existing smuggling networks.