In a press release accompanying its annual report 2016/17, published on Wednesday, Amnesty said the Swiss authorities “had illegally turned back several thousand asylum seekers to Italy”.
Among them were “several hundred unaccompanied minors, many of them who had relatives in Switzerland,” it said.
Switzerland’s border guards hit the headlines last summer when reports emerged that migrants trying to get into the country at the border with Italy in the canton of Ticino were being turned back.
Italy complained that Switzerland’s actions were causing hundreds of migrants to become stranded in the Italian city of Como, with makeshift camps springing up around the train station.
At the time the president of an Italian refugee organization said Switzerland had suspended an agreement with Italy allowing some migrants to cross into Italy.
But a spokesman for the Swiss border agency told The Local that no such agreement existed and that Switzerland was simpling following the rules.
Under Swiss law, any migrant who wishes to seek asylum in Switzerland must present themselves at the border and request asylum. They will then be registered with the relevant authorities and taken into the Swiss asylum system.
However many migrants do not wish to claim asylum in Switzerland but simply pass through the country in order to reach another, such as Germany, and claim asylum there.
In that case, the Swiss authorities do not consider them to have refugee status and therefore they are sent back to the country they arrived from.
However in a statement obtained by news agency ATS, Denise Graf, asylum coordinator of the Swiss section of Amnesty, said the methods used by Swiss border guards “prevented or dissuaded people from entering the country”.
Migrants, including minors, told Amnesty they had tried to lodge an asylum request on numerous occasions but did not succeed.
In refusing people asylum, “the border guards violate Swiss law,” said Amnesty.
Border guards also failed to properly assess people’s circumstances before sending them back to Italy, particularly where children were concerned, while a lack of interpreters fuelled confusion at the border, according to the human rights body.
No one interviewed by Amnesty in Como had received information from the Swiss authorities about the correct procedure to follow, it added.
Contacted by The Local, David Marquis, a spokesman for the Swiss Border Agency, said they “vehemently reject this criticism from Amnesty International” and that they had complied with all applicable laws.
Those who seek asylum or protection in accordance with the law are passed to reception centres run by the Swiss migration office (SEM), it said.
However migrants who merely want to pass through the country and who do not fulfil conditions of entry under Article 5 of the Foreigners Act are extradited to Italy under the terms of a readmission agreement dating from 2000.
The agency is “in constant contact with various relief organizations” in order to “optimize” its processes, added Marquis.
Amnesty’s annual report also criticized Switzerland for other actions last year, including restrictions on the movements of asylum seekers in reception centres, and the use of disproportionate force by police in certain cantons during operations to expel migrants.
Concerns remain over attempts to deport asylum seekers suffering from mental illness, said the report, mentioning the attempted deportation of a Kurd who had previously tried to commit suicide.
The report also picked up on the case of a 19-year-old dual national who intended to join Isis, saying the SEM wanted to strip him of his Swiss nationality even though he hadn’t yet been convicted of any crime.
However Amnesty did have some good things to say, praising the “positive measures” that came out of the new law on asylum, passed in a referendum in June 2016.
It also noted a new law requiring cantons to ensure that young asylum seekers had access to education, and the lower house of Parliament’s vote in favour of giving gay people to right to adopt their partner’s children.