June 18, 2010

"Swiss Plan to Gag Refugees"

Only two years after its last revision, the Swiss Asylum Act is about to be 'reformed' again. The changes include a gag order on political activism for asylum-seekers and a modification of the concept of a refugee.

Ever since Switzerland adopted the Asylum Act in 1981, it has constantly been tightened, largely at the expense of the refugees, as in most European countries.

In 2007 and 2008, Switzerland implemented a harshly criticised reform of the Asylum Act. Soon after, in spring 2008, Justice Minister Eveline Widmer- Schlumpf announced new measures to "reduce the attractiveness of Switzerland as a target country for asylum-seekers."

The latest reform proposals have now passed the consultation procedures and have been submitted to parliament for approval.

During the consultation procedure, 45 non-governmental organisations responded with a detailed statement slamming the proposed law revision as "unnecessary" and "baseless". Denise Graf, refugee coordinator of Amnesty International (AI), says the reform is unnecessary. "The annual number of asylum requests has in the last three years constantly been between 10,000 and 16,000. We're far from the record highs in the end of the nineties, when more than 40,000 applications per year were filed."

A highly controversial part of the revision is the plan to punish "abusive political activism" by asylum-seekers. The Federal Council argues that a number of asylum-seekers engage in exile politics only for the purpose of fabricating new reasons to be granted asylum.

Graf says the offence is insufficiently defined. Balthasar Glättli, secretary- general of the migrants' rights organisation Solidarité sans frontières (Sosf) says the provisions are "elastic", as it is up to the court to judge in particular cases. Adrian Hauser, spokesperson for the Swiss Refugee Council (SFH), says authorities would face serious difficulties proving that someone's political activities in exile are motivated by abusive motives.

Amnesty International's refugee coordinator points out that in their home countries, refugees often operate underground, as their activism is considered illegal. "Once in Switzerland," Graf says, "many asylum-seekers keep up opposition politics, but undercover. After a while, an exiled refugee may start to uncover his political activities, which could then be seen by the authorities as 'abusive'."

All three organisations regard the proposed measure as an attack on freedom of speech. "It's a totally unacceptable attempt to silence asylum-seekers," says Glättli. SFH's Hauser stresses that the European Convention on Human Rights only allows for restrictions of fundamental rights if national security, territorial integrity or public safety are in danger or to prevent disorder or crime. "Here and now, this is not the case."

Berhanu for instance had his asylum request rejected a few years ago. Having studied agricultural economics and development sciences, he once worked as an official in a regional administration in his home country Ethiopia. On a study visit to Europe in 1989 he learnt about ethnic unrest in his home region, and was warned that he'd be arrested if he were to return.

Berhanu, now staying illegally in an emergency centre near Zurich, says his political work ultimately aims at improving conditions in Ethiopia, that could enable him to return. His party, the Ginbot 7 Movement for Peace and Justice, opposes the authoritarian regime of the People's Revolutionary Democratic Front.

"Exile politics is about trying to voice out the situation and human rights abuses in our country to the rest of the world," says Berhanu. "At the same time, it's also a transfer of ideas and procedures aiming at the democratisation of Ethiopia and an attempt to strengthen home-grown opposition parties."

At a demonstration for the liberation of an imprisoned opposition leader in Geneva, Berhanu learnt about Switzerland's plans to sanction political activism of asylum-seekers. The gag order is "a law aligning with dictatorial regimes," he says. Even though open protest activities in the future may not be possible any more, Berhanu is optimistic that the Internet will allow him and his fellows to continuously mobilise to reach their objectives.

Switzerland is trying to modify the concept of a refugee. Until now, the country's asylum law has mostly targeted "untrue refugees", a distinction made to define people who migrate mainly for economic reasons. Under the new law proposal, people so far considered "true refugees" are being targeted, too.

This revision is a reaction to a decision by the former Asylum Recourse Commission (now the Federal Administrative Court) in 2005. The Commission had decided then that conscientious objectors and deserters from Eritrea would be granted asylum because their potential punishment in their home country would be politically motivated.

Fearing a rising number of asylum-seekers from Eritrea, the former right- wing justice minister Christoph Blocher and his successor Eveline Widmer- Schlumpf worked on measures to prevent the influx of Eritrean refugees. The number of asylum-seekers now seems to have become the decisive criteria.

This report was first published here by IPS Inter Press Service.