Nearly 70 per cent of those who voted in a referendum in Switzerland on September 24 said yes to reform of immigration and asylum laws. But the committee formed to oppose laws, which, according to UNHCR are amongst the harshest in Europe, has announced that it will build on the support of the 32 per cent of the electorate which opposed the laws to create a more progressive approach to asylum.*
New asylum and immigration laws
Under the Swiss political system, parliamentary legislation can be challenged by a referendum. So when the Swiss parliament passed two new laws on asylum and immigration in December 2005, a coalition of centre-left parties, trade unions, churches and aid organisations petitioned for a referendum, arguing that the reforms went against Switzerland’s humanitarian tradition.
This was the ninth time, since 1984, that Switzerland has revised its asylum law and the fifth time a new law has gone to the popular vote. Under amendments to the asylum law, any asylum seeker who fails to produce valid travel and identity documents within 48 hours of making a claim, will automatically have it rejected. Failed asylum seekers, including children, who refuse to leave the country voluntarily can be jailed for up to two years. Rejected asylum-seekers will no longer be entitled to any financial assistance. And, in a move condemned by Human Rights Watch, confidentiality during the asylum process is likely to be compromised because of the possibility of agreements with other states to help establish ‘motives for flight’.
The second piece of legislation put to the popular vote on September 24 was the Foreigners National Act which limits immigration for those outside the EU and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) to highly skilled workers. (It also places additional obstacles to those seeking family reunification.)The Federal Commission for Foreigners said it was opposed to any law that institutionalised discrimination between people from the EU/EFTA member states and people from third countries. And the mobilising committee for a no vote against the Foreigners National Act observed that the new law ignored ‘the realities of the job market’. It encouraged ‘more people to work illegally’, while ‘making it impossible for the 80,000 illegal residents already employed in Switzerland to ever get resident status’.
Policies of Swiss People’s Party opposed
The staunchest support for the new laws were in rural areas of German-speaking central and eastern Switzerland. The majorities in French-speaking regions were much lower. The yes vote was seen as a victory for the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which is the largest party in the centre-Right coalition government, and the anti-immigration policies of its justice minister, Christoph Blocher. The SVP ran its campaign on the slogan ‘Stop Abuse’. It promised that its reforms would get Switzerland the immigrants it needed and send out the clear message that ‘the paradise of Switzerland’ (Blocher’s words), did not have room for everyone. During the campaign, the UN special rapporteur on racism, Doudou Diène, speaking at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, criticised Switzerland for its discriminatory tendencies and the fact that racism had become an instrument in political debate. He singled out for criticism Blocher’s comments during the referendum campaign.
Following the yes vote, the SVP vowed to press on and bring in more laws to regulate immigration and foreigners’ rights. Campaigners fear that there will be scaremongering on figures in the months to come despite asylum claims in Switzerland having fallen to their lowest level in 20 years (down 30 per cent in 2005, when a total of 10,061 asylum claims were filed).
Despite the 70 per cent vote, Ruth Dreifuss, a former cabinet minister and spokesperson for the no vote campaign, expressed herself ‘disappointed but not discouraged’. Many of her supporters took heart from the large popular mobilisations against the laws. The Referendum Committee Against Asylum and Immigration Laws is to create an observatory to monitor the new laws and test out whether they are compatible with international law and human rights.