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”.

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How Switzerland’s strict immigration rules might have contributed to slow vaccination rollout

Since the start of the vaccination campaign in December 2020, cantons have experienced delays. One of reasons may be the shortage of qualified foreign workers in Switzerland.

How Switzerland’s strict immigration rules might have contributed to slow vaccination rollout
Shortage of workers has caused delays in producton. Photo by GUILLAUME SOUVANT / AFP

One of the active ingredients in the Moderna vaccine is manufactured by Swiss company, Lonza, in its factory in Visp, Valais.

A reason cited for the delay in Moderna’s delivery is that Lonza lacks about 100 biotechnology specialists for the production of the base material.

READ MORE: Switzerland cancels thousands of vaccination appointments after Moderna delivery delay

The problem lies in Swiss immigration rules, which limit the number of workers allowed to come to Switzerland from non-EU/EFTA states, the latter including Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein.

“For us, it is important to employ people from Europe and all over the world,” Lonza’s Head of Global Operations Jörg Solèr said in an interview with Switzerland’s SonntagsZeitung newspaper.

However, the number of workers who are allowed to come to Switzerland from third countries — that is, from outside the EU/EFTA — is capped.

That’s because authorities want companies to privilege Switzerland-based employees over foreign ones. When a position can’t be filled by local workforce, employers can then hire people from the EU / EFTA, and only turn to third nations as a last resort.

Getting a work permit for them is not easy.

They can be employed in Switzerland according to a quota system. For 2021, the Federal Council set the number of these work permits at a maximum of 8,500. Only 4,500 of them are long-term B permits, and 4000 are short-term L permits, valid for up to a year.

This quota applies to all employees from third-nations, with the exception of the UK, who are allowed 3,500 work authorisations— 2,100 B permits and 1,400 L permits — of their own. 

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What are your chances of getting a job in Switzerland from abroad?

However, these numbers apply throughout Switzerland; the quota for individual cantons is much lower.

The Valais National Council is calling on the federal authorities to create exemptions from the current immigration rules for industries which depend on specialised employees but can’t recruit them in Switzerland or the EU.

“Many high-tech industries like Lonza can no longer find the workers they need in Switzerland or the EU. Quotas therefore do not protect Swiss jobs; on the contrary, they jeopardise the development and prosperity of Switzerland ”, said Valais MP Philippe Nantermod.

“The priority now is to produce the vaccine, not to limit immigration”, he added.

His motion will be discussed during the next parliamentary session in May.

In the meantime, given the urgency involved in getting the vaccine production back on track, the government is stepping in to find biotech experts for Lonza.

The Federal Department of Home Affairs (FDHA) is trying to locate specialised personnel among those employed by the federal administration and various universities.