Swiss to tighten asylum laws

World
Swiss President Ueli Maurer speaks during a joint press conference with his Lithuanian counterpart. A controversial revision ordered as an emergency measure by the government and went into effect last October, marked the seventh change of the asylum law Picture: PETRAS MALUKAS

SWITZERLAND - The Swiss will vote Sunday on whether to approve an emergency tightening of the country's asylum law in a bid to stem the influx of refugees to the wealthy Alpine nation.

A controversial revision, which was ordered as an emergency measure by the government and went into effect last October, marked the seventh change of the asylum law in Switzerland -- Europe's fourth most popular destination for refugees.

The vote on June 9 -- one of four Sunday's this year set aside for popular votes on national, cantonal and communal issues as part of Switzerland's famous direct democratic system -- comes after a range of opponents of the revision collected the 100,000 signatures required to call a referendum.

Also on Sunday, the Swiss will be called to vote on whether the people should elect the country's seven government members directly instead of having parliament pick them, as it has been doing for the past 165 years.

According to recent polls though, that initiative appears set to fail.

Opponents of the new asylum law revisions, including human rights advocates, religious groups and unions who have banned together a collective called "Coordination against Exclusion and Xenophobia", also appear destined to fall short in their bid to overturn the changes.

Surveys show the Swiss are increasingly leaning towards giving their stamp of approval to the changes, as some balk at soaring numbers of refugees flocking to the small Alpine nation, which offers generous hand-outs throughout the asylum process.

A poll by public broadcaster RTS in late May showed that 57 percent of those questioned were in favour of the revisions, up nine percentage points from a month earlier.

There are currently some 48,000 people in the process of seeking asylum to Switzerland, including a full 28,631 who arrived in 2012 -- the highest number in a decade.

Only 11.7 percent of asylum applications were meanwhile granted last year, when most asylum seekers to the country came from Eritrea, Nigeria, Tunisia, Serbia and Afghanistan.

Counting one asylum seeker for every 332 inhabitants, Switzerland ranks as the fourth most popular host country in Europe, trailing only Malta, Sweden and Luxembourg, and ranking far above the European average of one asylum seeker for every 625 inhabitants.

Among the most controversial changes to the Swiss asylum law last year, was the decision to remove persecution due to military desertion as legal grounds for seeking asylum in Switzerland -- a motive mainly used by Eritreans.

The revision also removed the possibility, which had been unique in Europe, to apply for asylum in Switzerland from Swiss embassies around the world.

That move revision has been harshly criticised by the Swiss Bishops Conference, which stressed recently it would force people "to pay intermediaries and to embark upon high-risk trips" to make their way to Switzerland.

The bishops also said the revisions would mean people in real need of assistance would be rejected.

"Behind every statistic there hides the destiny of men and women," it said in a recent statement, insisting that "no one leaves their country of their own free will without knowing what the future in another country or continent has in store".

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga, who is in charge of the brief, however insists the changes were for the best of the asylum seekers themselves.

She especially highlighted the speeding-up of the application process aimed to bring handling times down from several years to several months by removing the possibility of multiple appeals.

"Leaving people and their families for so long wallowing in uncertainty is unacceptable," she said recently, insisting that "processes that drag on and the asylum-seeker tag blocks rapid integration".

The rejigged asylum law also clears the way for the creation of special centres for asylum seekers considered to be trouble-makers and limits the right to family reunification to spouses and children.

As for the second issue to be voted on Sunday, it was proposed by Switzerland's largest party, the populist Swiss People's Party (SVP), which insists that allowing the electorate to choose its leaders directly would strengthen the government's legitimacy.

All the other political parties have however come out against the initiative, maintaining it would weaken parliament, and a recent poll showed only 25 percent support for the shift among voters.

-Sapa

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