Switzerland prepares to take its share of refugees

Switzerland is expected to offer to accept 4,000 to 5,000 refugees who have entered the European Union largely from the wartorn regions of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Switzerland prepares to take its share of refugees
Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga: refugee problem is 'European not national'. Photo: John Thys/AFP

The federal government will discuss the offer at a meeting on Friday and is expected to present it to the EU in Brussels on Tuesday, broadcaster RTS reported.

The goal is to help front-line countries Greece, Italy and Hungary in dealing with the influx of thousands of asylum seekers, as well as Germany and Sweden, which have ended up with the bulk of them.

Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga told reporters at a meeting of German-speaking heads of state in Liechtenstein on Thursday that there was no national solution to the asylum issue but only a pan-European one.

The federal government has thus far avoiding discussing the refugee issue, given that most asylum seekers have been heading to Germany and Sweden, giving Switzerland a wide birth.

Voters in Switzerland last year approved capping immigration from the EU in defiance of a freedom of movement agreement that Bern signed with Brussels.

But the dynamics of the refugee crisis changed this week after Germany, which expects to take in one million refugees this year, temporarily closed its borders after being overwhelmed by migrants.

Austria and Hungary followed suit and now Slovenia and Croatia have put in similar controls.

Police clashed with refugees on Wednesday in Hungary, where the state has erected a barbed-wire fence on its border.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, called an emergency summit for next Wednesday to talk about instituting an EU quota system, which has been vigorously opposed by Eastern European countries.

The Swiss government, meanwhile, will also discuss the possibility of humanitarian aid to help non-governmental organizations (NGOs) active in Iraq or Syria, RTS reported.

A sum of between 50 million francs and 100 million francs has been proposed, the broadcaster said. 

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Amnesty decries Swiss asylum centre abuse

Minors and adults housed in Swiss asylum centres have faced serious abuses at the hands of security staff, including beatings and chokeholds, Amnesty International warned Wednesday.

Amnesty decries Swiss asylum centre abuse
An asylum centre in the Alpine village of Realp, Central Switzerland. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

In a report, the rights organisation’s Swiss chapter detailed “alarming abuse” in the country’s federal asylum centres, and called for urgent government action to address the problem.

The report documents a range of abuses by staff of the private security companies Securitas and Protectas, which had been contracted by Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Migration (SEM).

Amnesty said it had spoken with 14 asylum seekers, including two minors, who reported having faced abuse from the security officers between January 2020 and April 2021, along with 18 current and former security agents and other witnesses.

The asylum seekers described being beaten and physically restrained to the point where they could not breathe or fainted.

Some also complained about trouble breathing after being doused with pepper spray, and being locked in a metal container in freezing temperatures.

The report found that six of the alleged victims had to be hospitalised, while two said they had been denied the medical assistance they had requested.

“In addition to complaints about physical pain, mistreatment and punitive treatment, these people also voiced concerns about (security staff’s) hostility, prejudice and racism towards the residents,” said Alice Giraudel, a lawyer with Amnesty’s Swiss branch.

Such attitudes had seemed to target people of North African origin in particular, she said. Some of the abuse cases, Amnesty said, “could amount to torture”, and would thus violate Switzerland’s obligations under international law.

In a media statement, the SEM said it took the criticism “very seriously”, but rejected the suggestion that abuses were taking place in a systematic manner in federal asylum centres.

It stressed that there was no acceptance for “disproportionate constraint” of asylum seekers, and vowed to “sanction all improper behaviour.”

Giraudel hailed that the SEM had recently announced it would open an external probe into isolated abuse allegations.

But, she insisted, the situation was alarming and required the government to stop looking at allegations of abuse as the work of “a few bad apples”.