In early May 2021, the Swiss immigration authority (Secrétariat d’Etat aux Migrations or SEM) launched an investigation into allegations of violence at federal asylum centres in Switzerland. The investigation followed the release of press reports about the use of excessive force by security officers when dealing with some asylum seekers. According to SEM, appropriate procedures and reporting by security staff were not followed properly. By May, 14 private security staff had been suspended at three centres, including eight at Boudry in the Canton of Neuchâtel.
One of the cases reported by Swiss news agencies was that of Ayoub, a young Moroccan national who was housed at the largest centre, in Boudry, in November 2020. He was placed in a container without heating in the middle of winter. Said Ayoub: “It is a very small place. On the floor and on the walls, there were traces of blood. On the ground, traces of vomit and urine. The smell was unbearable and I felt like I was lacking oxygen. It was terribly cold and there was no bed or mattress.” Ayoub was found in a state of advanced hypothermia, and a criminal investigation was launched after medical staff alerted judicial authorities.
The investigation comes as other cases of mistreatment of asylum seekers by officials gain attention in Switzerland.
On 9 May, a Swiss court convicted three border guards of mistreatment of a pregnant Syrian asylum seeker who suffered a miscarriage during her removal to Italy in 2014.
In February 2021, the case of a Guinean national named Abdou Mariga, who died shortly after Switzerland deported him to Guinea in 2019, gained national attention when members of the Swiss Federal Council opened up an investigation into SEM’s decision to deport the young man. This decision was taken despite the fact that he had no family members in that country and the canton he resided in had wanted to regularise his status. Suffering from hepatitis B and destitute, Abdou Mariga was unable to find treatment and died just months after his deportation at the age of 30.
In a separate development, the number of people held in Swiss prisons and detention centres was at its lowest level in a decade as of early 2021. According to experts, the decline is partly due to measures put in place since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. On 31 January 2021, the number of people held in Swiss prisons was 6,316, 8.4 per cent lower than on the same day in 2020. Foreign nationals detained for migration-related procedures made up a small fraction of that number, accounting for only 115 of the country’s total detainee population on that day, down from 267 on that same day in 2019 and 428 in 2009.
However, foreign nationals nevertheless account for the largest percentage of Switzerland’s total prison population, according to a recent Council of Europe study, which found that nearly 75 percent of detainees in Swiss prisons are non-citizens. The Swiss prison system comprises 92 institutions with a total capacity of 7,397 places. Nearly 95 percent of prisoners are men and more than 70 percent are foreign nationals. An important reason for this is that Switzerland has one of the highest percentages of foreign residents in Europe: 25.1 percent in 2017, or 2.1 million people. This translates to “almost three out of every 10 residents in Switzerland.”
Despite the decrease in the overall prison population, Switzerland did not opt to release large number of prisoners after onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, opting instead to impose a series of other measures to prevent the spread of the disease, including restricting visits to prisoners, limiting paroled absences, and cutting back on sporting and other social activities. This resulted in inmates having to spend more time in their cells in isolation. Prisons in some cantons, however, appeared to try to implement comparatively more humane measures. At Champ-Dollon in Geneva, Switzerland’s most overcrowded prison, plexiglass partitions were put up in the visiting area so that family members could still visit. The prison’s population also dropped from 650 to 560 as alternatives to custodial sentences were adopted including, house arrest, electronic bracelets, and an obligation to report to the police. For its part Canton Bern released some three dozen inmates who were in an open prison or in semi-detention as they belonged to at-risk groups, and they waived custodial sentences for individuals serving less than 30 days who were not considered to be a danger to society.
- Swissinfo, “Detainees in Swiss Prisons at Lowest Level in a Decade,” 27 April 2021, https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/detainees-in-swiss-prisons-at-lowest-level-in-a-decade/46568852
- P. Islas, “Why Most of Switzerland’s Prisoners are Not Swiss,” Swiss Info, 17 April 2021, https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/crime-statistics_why-are-most-of-switzerland-s-prisoners-foreign-/44897698
- M. Savoy, “L’Affaire du Requérant Refoulé et Décédé en Guinée Rebondit à Berne,” RTS, 24 February 2021, https://www.rts.ch/info/suisse/11999521-laffaire-du-requerant-refoule-et-decede-en-guinee-rebondit-a-berne.html?fbclid=IwAR1Hto89GiIFTQNTRZ8Fv94AKmOwvmpx8NIUyFxjktY20Pts0C8Dtx2YLaE
- Swissinfo, “Switzerland Launches Probe Into Suspected Asylum Centre Violence,” 5 May 2021, https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/switzerland-launches-probe-into-suspected-asylum-centre-violence/46592262
- L. Rocchi & T. Epitaux, “Bavures et Rapports Trafiqués: La Sécurité Dérape dans les Centre Fédéraux d’Asile,” https://www.rts.ch/info/suisse/12175381-bavures-et-rapports-trafiques-la-securite-derape-dans-les-centres-federaux-dasile.html
- Swiss Government, “Le SEM Commande une Enquête sur des Allégations de Violence,” 5 May 2021, https://www.sem.admin.ch/sem/fr/home/sem/medien/mm.msg-id-83389.html
- L. Jorio, “Prisoners in Switzerland Stay Behind Bars Despite Coronavirus,” Swissinfo, 15 April 2021, https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/no-amnesty_prisoners-in-switzerland-stay-behind-bars-despite-coronavirus/45686672
- Le Temps, “En Suisse, Le Nombre de Certains Détenus est en Nette Baisse,” 27 April 2021, https://www.letemps.ch/suisse/suisse-nombre-certains-detenus-nette-baisse#:~:text=Le%20nombre%20total%20de%20personnes,de%20la%20statistique%20(OFS)
- Statistics on Detainees per Category of Detention in Switzerland from 2017 to 2021, (Office Fédéral de la Statistique, “Statistique de la Privation de Liberté: Effectif des Détenus Selon le Type de Détention,” 27 April 2021, https://www.bfs.admin.ch/bfs/fr/home/statistiken/kataloge-datenbanken/grafiken.assetdetail.16924790.html)