U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2003 - Switzerland

At the end of 2002, Switzerland hosted approximately 44,200 refugees and asylum seekers. These included about 26,300 persons with provisional admission status, some 16,200 pending cases at first instance proceedings, and about 1,700 persons granted asylum during the year.

During the year, some 26,200 persons filed asylum applications in Switzerland, an increase of 27 percent from 2001. Significant source countries included Yugoslavia (3,700), Turkey (1,900), Bosnia (1,600), and Iraq (1,200).

The Federal Office for Refugees (refugee office) made decisions on 21,700 cases during 2002, granting asylum to about 8 percent of them: a decrease from an approval rate of 12 percent in 2001. The countries with the highest approval rates were Turkey (460), Iraq (350), Yugoslavia (170), and Bosnia (150). The refugee office denied asylum to about 19,900 applicants of which 6,400 (about 32 percent) were decisions "not to enter into the matter."

Swiss authorities withdrew asylum from about 3,200 refugees in 2002 because they deemed the situation in these persons' countries of origin had become safe.

Asylum Procedure

Swiss law stipulates that asylum seekers should request asylum at the border upon entering the country. At the border, asylum applicants fill out applications that the border police forward to the refugee office – which decides, usually the same day, whether to permit entry.

The refugee office may deny permission to applicants without visas if a third country, as stipulated under an agreement, is responsible for reviewing the asylum request, or if the applicant did not arrive directly from the country of alleged persecution and spent time in a safe country where they could have claimed asylum. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), although Switzerland does not maintain an official list of safe countries, Swiss authorities generally consider countries that are parties to the UN Refugee Convention to be safe.

The overwhelming majority of asylum seekers file their claims after entering Switzerland. Whether or not their entry was legal, inland applicants go through the asylum procedure, although a decision "not to enter into the matter" may deny them a full status-determination procedure. Officials may make a decision not to enter to the matter when undocumented asylum seekers are unable to justify their lack of documents, do not indicate they face persecution in their country, give a false identity, refuse to cooperate with the authorities, have the option to travel to another country where an application for asylum is pending or which is responsible to process the claim and has an agreement with Switzerland to do so, have stayed illegally in Switzerland for a long period of time and cannot substantiate prima facie persecution, have already had asylum claims processed and rejected in Switzerland, or have withdrawn their claims (unless there are changed circumstances). Generally, officials must make such a decision within 20 days and provide reasons for the decision. Applicants may appeal such denials within 30 days. Removal can occur within 24 hours and appealing will not automatically suspend it, although the Appeals Board may suspend deportation.

Authorities may refuse entry to airport arrivals if their return to a safe-third-country is "possible, permissible, and may be reasonably expected." If it is impossible to decide a claim immediately, the asylum seeker is issued a provisional refusal of entry and is required to remain in the airport transit zone until a decision is made. Authorities also consider whether an asylum seeker can return to his or her country of origin safely, in consultation with UNHCR. The asylum seeker can stay at the airport transit zone for a maximum of 15 days, but may enter the country after that if no decision is made. The authorities have proposed revisions to the airport procedures to eliminate UNHCR's involvement.

The refugee office places inland applicants and asylum seekers who are permitted entry in a federal reception center. In August, authorities introduced a new procedure to increase the number of applications processed at these reception centers. Until August, the refugee office summarily questioned applicants about their reasons for seeking asylum to see if the cases were manifestly unfounded, and then transferred them to a cantonal reception center to await an in-depth interview. Since then the refugee office has increased staff and is now able to interview asylum seekers on the substance of their claims upon their arrival in these reception centers. The increased presence of staff from the refugee office has allowed more interviews of asylum seekers, and facilitated collection of documentation and identity checks that has allowed authorities to return rejected asylum seekers directly from these reception centers. This procedure primarily affects applications that are manifestly unfounded, applicants that come from so-called trend countries where there are larger than usual numbers of asylum seekers arriving (Nigeria, Cameroon, and Bulgaria among others in 2002), and cases where an applicant does not have credible fear. In just a few months of existence, officials were able to process an additional 500 asylum applications.

Asylum seekers rejected under the normal procedure who file appeals to the Appeals Board generally can remain in Switzerland pending a decision.

Persecution by non-state agents does not constitute grounds for asylum in Switzerland, unless the applicant can prove that the state authorities condoned the persecution.

Recognized refugees receive renewable one-year residence permits (and permanent residence after five years), work authorization, access to public assistance, and education. They may apply for immediate members of their family to join them.

Alternative Forms of Protection

Authorities may grant "temporary protection" on an ad hoc basis to groups of persons who fled generalized violence, to several categories of persons not granted asylum but who are in serious danger, or for humanitarian reasons.

The authorities may also grant "provisional admission" to persons rejected for asylum if removal is not allowed under Article 33 of the UN Refugee Convention, the torture provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, or the Convention against Torture or is not reasonable. Provisional admission may also be granted in cases of serious personal circumstances when an application for asylum has been pending for more than four years, if the asylum seeker is financially independent and has children who have attended school for the past two years.

Around one-third of persons in Switzerland who had this status at the end of 2002 were Yugoslavs, the majority of who were non-Albanian Kosovars, as well as large numbers of Sri Lankans, many of whom face persecution at the hands of non-state actors. Since Switzerland does not generally recognize this kind of persecution in its asylum process, provisional admission may be the only form of protection available to refugees fearing such persecution. Accordingly, the U.S. Committee for Refugees counts them along with refugees and asylum seekers in need of protection.

New Developments

During 2002 Switzerland held a referendum on a law to restrict asylum. With a 46 percent turnout, voters narrowly rejected the measure, with 50.1 percent voting against them. Under the proposed law, authorities could summarily deport persons arriving from a safe third country without any type of hearing and without allowing them to file for asylum. Since most asylum applicants in Switzerland came over land borders from countries deemed safe, the law would allow authorities to remove most asylum seekers without a hearing. UNHCR said the proposal went too far in denying persons the right to a hearing, and that it passed Switzerland's obligations on to its neighbors.

Readmission Agreements

Switzerland has entered into a series of agreements with its neighbors and other countries to implement the safe-third-country rule and to return other rejected asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants, and persons whose temporary protected status have expired. Switzerland has signed readmission agreements with Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Estonia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Sri Lanka, and Yugoslavia. Switzerland signed readmission agreements with Sweden, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia during the year.

Switzerland is not a party to the Dublin and Schengen Conventions, but it began negotiations with the European Union in 2002 regarding their implementation.

Detention and Deportation

Swiss authorities may detain asylum seekers older than 15 years if they file claims under different names, if they refuse to reveal their identity, if they miss asylum interviews repeatedly and without cause, if they violate any restrictions on movement, if they were refused permission to enter Switzerland but the government is unable to expel them after an expulsion order is issued, or if they are being prosecuted for, or if they were convicted of, threatening the public order.

Authorities may detain a rejected asylum seeker for up to nine months while awaiting removal if the foregoing criteria apply, or a credible threat exists that the individual will evade deportation, or the individual was already in detention pending a decision on his or her case.

Swiss law prevents the removal of unaccompanied minors under age 18. Nongovernmental organizations have criticized the Swiss government for failing to protect minors who are lured into drugs and prostitution while awaiting deportation.

The government scrutinized removal procedures in 2002, in light of the asphyxiation of a Nigerian asylum seeker, during his deportation in 2001, and the death by suffocation of a Palestinian in 1999. Swiss authorities have agreed to ban facial gags, excessive use of force, and techniques that limit breathing during forced repatriations. Switzerland is also training special police units to deport people who resist removal to prevent such incidents.

Other Restrictive Measures

Several places in Switzerland, including the cantons of Bern, Geneva, Solothurn, Vuad, and Zurich, reportedly created designated zones off-limit to "undesirables." Officials have the power to limit the zones to which persons without yearly residence permits and suspected drug dealers can travel. Critics argue that this is being used to keep asylum seekers, who do not have a yearly residence permit, out of city centers. Human rights observers, including the Swiss group Augen Auf, stated that in Meilen in Canton Zurich asylum seekers were prevented from entering the sports grounds or city center. According to The Guardian, authorities decreed that asylum seekers could not use the public swimming pool unless accompanied by a resident or official and produced a color-coded map of the town, with an explanatory key depicting four black men with a line through them to indicate areas off limits for asylum seekers. Under criticism, the town retracted the decrees.


During the autumn, between 400 and 500 persons crossed into Switzerland and applied for asylum within about ten days. Swiss authorities accelerated the processing of the claims, and by October, around 300 persons had been repatriated, both voluntarily and involuntarily. Romanian authorities reportedly confiscated the passports for five years of some of those who were returned after their asylum claims failed.

Yugoslav Refugees

During the year around 3,700 Yugoslavs applied for asylum in Switzerland. Of the merits decisions the refugee office issued, they granted 170 persons asylum and 1,600 persons temporary protection status. Approximately 18,800 Yugoslavs remain in Switzerland, including refugees accepted in 2002 and in the past, and others with pending cases or other temporary statuses. The majority of these persons are Kosovars.

In April, the refugee office announced that non-Albanians from Kosovo would not be granted provisional admission anymore. The refugee office considered it safe for these persons to return to Kosovo, and therefore announced that provisional admission that had been granted could be revoked. The refugee office stated it would evaluate situations on a case-by-case basis for specific groups, including Albanian speaking Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptians (RAE), Slavic Muslims, and Serbian-speaking Roma and Serbs. It set March 30, 2003 as a provisional date of departure, with the understanding that the situation would be reassessed in February or March of 2003.

Bosnians Approximately 2,600 Bosnians have provisional admission. Another 3,100 Bosnians had asylum requests pending, or had received a decision on their case and had not yet left the country.


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