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IMMIGRATION

Tougher asylum law backed by large majority

Swiss citizens voted overwhelmingly Sunday in favour of a government move to tighten the country's asylum law amid a spike in refugees, in what opponents of the changes decried as a "disaster".

Tougher asylum law backed by large majority
Poster from organization opposing tougher asylum laws. Photo: stopexclusion.ch

A full 78.4 percent of voters embraced changes made to the asylum law last September as applications soared to their hightest level in over a decade.

Opponents of the asylum law revision, which includes the removal of military desertion from a list of valid grounds for seeking asylum in Switzerland, voiced deep disappointment at their defeat.

"The referendum is a disaster for asylum seekers and refugees and leaves no winners," the committee that had requested the vote on the changes said in a statement, hailing the "minority of the population that still has a conscience".

Manon Schick, the head of Amnesty International's Switzerland section, also lamented the "very, very high" percentage of Swiss who had voted in favour of the revision.

"We knew in advance that we would lose," she told AFP, pointing out that the Swiss have repeatedly voted to tighten their asylum law since it went into effect in 1981, "but that it was this bad was very disappointing."

Céline Amandruz of the populist Swiss People's Party (SVP), however welcomed the strong support for the tougher law, insisting that nine out of 10 people who seek refuge in the wealthy country did so "for economic reasons".

 "There is clearly a need to change this system," she said.

One of the most controversial revisions was the removal of military desertion as a valid reason for asylum.

That has been the key reason cited by Eritreans, who accounted for most applications to Switzerland last year and whose country imposes unlimited and under-paid military service on all able-bodied men and women.

The revision also removed the possibility, which had been unique in Europe, to apply for asylum from Swiss embassies — a change opponents described as "inhumane", since it meant people unable to make the often dangerous journey from their country to Switzerland would remain without help.

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga has insisted that the changes largely benefit the asylum seekers themselves, highlighting especially the efforts to speed up the application process.

"Leaving people and their families for so long wallowing in uncertainty is unacceptable," she said recently.

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.

Many opponents complained Sunday that Sommaruga had mixed harsh tightening measures in with the legitimate change of shortening the application handling process — which can drag on for years.

"I don't believe 80 percent of Swiss voters said yes because they are xenophobic," Schick said.

Switzerland currently counts some 48,000 people in the process of seeking asylum, including 28,631 who arrived in 2012.

The surge, attributed in part to the Arab Spring uprisings, marks the highest number since the height of the Balkans war in 1999, when nearly 48,000 people sought refuge in the country.

Switzerland counts one asylum seeker for every 332 inhabitants, trailing only Malta, Sweden and Luxembourg, and ranking far above the European average of one asylum seeker for every 625 inhabitants.

Besides the asylum law, the Swiss also voted on a series of other national, regional and local issues Sunday.

Among them was an initiative for the people to elect their government directly instead of it being chosen by parliament.

This was rejected by an overwhelming 76.3 percent of Swiss voters.

Other votes included one in Zurich, where voters embraced a bid to impose tougher measures against hooliganism.

Only 39 percent of the 5.2 million people eligible to vote meanwhile cast their ballot Sunday, but low turnout is not uncommon in Switzerland, which hosts numerous popular votes each year.

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IMMIGRATION

How Europe’s population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

The populations of countries across Europe are changing, with some increasing whilst others are falling. Populations are also ageing meaning the EU is having to react to changing demographics.

How Europe's population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

After decades of growth, the population of the European Union decreased over the past two years mostly due to the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest data from the EU statistical office Eurostat show that the EU population was 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, 172,000 fewer than the previous year. On 1 January 2020, the EU had a population of 447.3 million.

This trend is because, in 2020 and 2021 the two years marked by the crippling pandemic, there have been more deaths than births and the negative natural change has been more significant than the positive net migration.

But there are major differences across countries. For example, in numerical terms, Italy is the country where the population has decreased the most, while France has recorded the largest increase.

What is happening and how is the EU reacting?

In which countries is the population growing?

In 2021, there were almost 4.1 million births and 5.3 million deaths in the EU, so the natural change was negative by 1.2 million (more broadly, there were 113,000 more deaths in 2021 than in 2020 and 531,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, while the number of births remained almost the same).

Net migration, the number of people arriving in the EU minus those leaving, was 1.1 million, not enough to compensate.

A population growth, however, was recorded in 17 countries. Nine (Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, France, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands and Sweden) had both a natural increase and positive net migration.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Five things to know about Germany’s foreign population

In eight EU countries (the Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia, Spain, Lithuania, Austria, Portugal and Finland), the population increased because of positive net migration, while the natural change was negative.

The largest increase in absolute terms was in France (+185,900). The highest natural increase was in Ireland (5.0 per 1,000 persons), while the biggest growth rate relative to the existing population was recorded in Luxembourg, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta (all above 8.0 per 1,000 persons).

In total, 22 EU Member States had positive net migration, with Luxembourg (13.2 per 1 000 persons), Lithuania (12.4) and Portugal (9.6) topping the list.

Births and deaths in the EU from 1961 to 2021 (Eurostat)

Where is the population declining?

On the other hand, 18 EU countries had negative rates of natural change, with deaths outnumbering births in 2021.

Ten of these recorded a population decline. In Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia population declined due to a negative natural change, while net migration was slightly positive.

In Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia, the decrease was both by negative natural change and negative net migration.

READ ALSO: Italian class sizes set to shrink as population falls further

The largest fall in population was reported in Italy, which lost over a quarter of a million (-253,100).

The most significant negative natural change was in Bulgaria (-13.1 per 1,000 persons), Latvia (-9.1), Lithuania (-8.7) and Romania (-8.2). On a proportional basis, Croatia and Bulgaria recorded the biggest population decline (-33.1 per 1,000 persons).

How is the EU responding to demographic change?

From 354.5 million in 1960, the EU population grew to 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, an increase of 92.3 million. If the growth was about 3 million persons per year in the 1960s, it slowed to about 0.7 million per year on average between 2005 and 2022, according to Eurostat.

The natural change was positive until 2011 and turned negative in 2012 when net migration became the key factor for population growth. However, in 2020 and 2021, this no longer compensated for natural change and led to a decline.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Over time, says Eurostat, the negative natural change is expected to continue given the ageing of the population if the fertility rate (total number of children born to each woman) remains low.

This poses questions for the future of the labour market and social security services, such as pensions and healthcare.

The European Commission estimates that by 2070, 30.3 per cent of the EU population will be 65 or over compared to 20.3 per cent in 2019, and 13.2 per cent is projected to be 80 or older compared to 5.8 per cent in 2019.

The number of people needing long-term care is expected to increase from 19.5 million in 2016 to 23.6 million in 2030 and 30.5 million in 2050.

READ ALSO: How foreigners are changing Switzerland

However, demographic change impacts different countries and often regions within the same country differently.

When she took on the Presidency of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen appointed Dubravka Šuica, a Croatian politician, as Commissioner for Democracy and Demography to deal with these changes.

Among measures in the discussion, in January 2021, the Commission launched a debate on Europe’s ageing society, suggesting steps for higher labour market participation, including more equality between women and men and longer working lives.

In April, the Commission proposed measures to make Europe more attractive for foreign workers, including simplifying rules for non-EU nationals who live on a long-term basis in the EU. These will have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council.

In the fourth quarter of this year, the Commission also plans to present a communication on dealing with ‘brain drain’ and mitigate the challenges associated with population decline in regions with low birth rates and high net emigration.

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.

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