11 May 2021
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)
02 February 2021
On 26 January 2021, the SRF/RTS reported that the Asylum Departure Centre in Aarwangen was placed under quarantine by the Canton of Bern because 19 of its 100 inhabitants had tested positive for COVID-19. They also closed the facility’s kindergarten and school. On 29 January 2021, the Canton reported that the number of positive cases had increased to 32, one of which a mutated version of the virus (it was not explicitly stated that the mutation was the B117 strain).
Asylum seekers at the Aarwangen centre have said that there has been over-congestion, as well as mismanagement of early isolation orders and sanitary conditions. An article in Berner Zeitung (30 January 2021) reported that a woman and her five family members, who all tested positive for COVID-19, were not receiving food, and that the woman had to go to the closest town herself to shop. Residents were reportedly provided with just one mask a week. A former centre employee confirmed that even though several people had warned them early on, the centre management ignored the impending danger of infections and let the situation escalate until the canton had to intervene and pay for the inhabitants’ food.
A SRF/RTS journalist, after exchanges with operators of the asylum centre, described how the quarantine situation (in terms of respecting hygiene rules and cohabitation) largely depends on the actions of those housed in the centre. For young men at the centre who face negative asylum decisions and deportation, the added health crisis worsens the difficult situation they find themselves in. A spokesperson ORS Service AG, which operates the centres, denounced criticism of operations at the centre. He argued that there is a tense atmosphere there even including attacks on staff, as well as instances of quarantined residents failing to follow internal health and safety regulations and instead mingling with other people.
The Swiss National Commission for the Prevention of Torture published a report on 18 January 2021 on the situation in the Federal Asylum Centres in Boudry, Balerna, Chiasso, Geneva Airport, Kappelen, Kreuzlingen, "Via Motta" (Chiasso), and ”Halle 9 Oerlikon," which is operated by the city of Zurich. According to their findings, the accommodation of asylum seekers by the federal government conforms with human and fundamental rights, and they welcomed initiatives like primary school lessons and addiction consultations. Moting areas where improvement was needed, including better conflict prevention and resolution, and responding to complaints, they also reported that there is room for improvement in the identification of vulnerable people, access to basic psychiatric care, disciplinary measures and, infrastructure.
The cantonal authorities in Bern re-opened four centres for asylum seekers in 2020 in order to cope with the pandemic, in Gampelen, Enggistein (Worb), Konolfingen and Beatenberg, according to a 16 July 2020 letter from the Office for Population Services.
Irrespective of the pandemic, new centres are also planned in Switzerland for other purposes. On 2 February 2021, SRF/RTS reported that Neuchâtel would open two new reception centres for migrants in the coming months, aiming for their professional and social integration into local society. A “Special Federal Asylum Centre” in Les Verrières (Neuchâtel) is also to be reopened by the federal authorities in mid-February 2021. According to a press statement by the State Secretariat of Migration (2 February 2021), it will be reopened to house disruptive male asylum seekers from other federal asylum centres and will have stricter exit and safety rules. These developments follow media coverage of apparent increasing criminality around federal asylum centres (C. Liechti, 7 January 2021).
Deportations continue to be carried out by the Swiss authorities. Most recently, the planned forced return of five people to Ethiopia on 27 January 2021 was criticised by Amnesty International, AsyLex, and Migrant Solidarity Network. On 25 January 2021, Amnesty International demanded a halt in all forced returns to Ethiopia from Switzerland in light of the tense security situation and human rights violations in the country. On 26 January 2021, RTS reported that the deportations of two of the Ethiopians represented by AsyLex were suspended by the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) and the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
- M. Von Wartburg, “Corona Fordert Asylzentren Heraus,” 26 January 2021, SRF, https://www.srf.ch/audio/regionaljournal-bern-freiburg-wallis/corona-fordert-asylzentren-heraus?id=11920354
- SRF, “Pandemie fordert Bewohnerinnen und Betreuer in Asylzentren,” 27 January 2021, https://www.srf.ch/news/schweiz/corona-im-asylzentrum-pandemie-fordert-bewohnerinnen-und-betreuer-in-asylzentren
- Kanton Bern, “Coronavirus: Informationen zu Wengen, Aarwangen und Wangen an der Aare,” 29 January 2021, https://www.be.ch/portal/de/index/mediencenter/medienmitteilungen.meldungNeu.html/portal/de/meldungen/mm/2021/01/20210129_1324_coronavirus_informationenzuwengenaarwangenundwangenanderaare?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=Medienmitteilungen&utm_campaign=Coronavirus%3A+Informationen+zu+Wengen%2C+Aarwangen+und+Wangen+an+der+Aare
- L. Stuber and C. Zeier, “Neue Vorwürfe an Betreiberin nach massivem Corona-Ausbruch,” 30 January 2021, Berner Zeitung, https://www.bernerzeitung.ch/neue-vorwuerfe-an-betreiberin-nach-massivem-corona-ausbruch-622541895066?fbclid=IwAR3QY1FX-vbXkdHSDst-S0RFqibTV345zjYWIKYD98l4iekF42Pmf8HDC0A
- National Commission for the Prevention of Torture, “Bundesasylzentren: Grundschulunterricht wirkt sich positiv aus, Verbesserungspotential bei der Gewaltprävention und beim Schutz von vulnerablen Personen,” 18 January 2021, https://www.nkvf.admin.ch/nkvf/de/home/publikationen/mm.msg-id-82013.html
- M. Aeschlimann, “Schreiben des Amts für Bevölkerungsdienste an die Gruppe “Stopp Isolation,” 16 July 2020, https://www.be.ch/portal/de/index/mediencenter/medienmitteilungen.assetref/dam/documents/portal/Medienmitteilungen/de/2020/07/2020-07-17-sid-schreiben-abev-stopp-isolation.pdf
- State Secretariat for Migration, “Das besondere Bundeasylzentrum in Les Verrières wird wieder in Betrieb genommen,” 2 February 2021, https://www.sem.admin.ch/sem/de/home/sem/medien/mm.msg-id-82196.html
- C. Liechti, “Rund um Bundesasylzentren nimmt die Kriminalität zu,” 7 January 2021, SRF, https://www.srf.ch/news/schweiz/keine-angst-vor-konsequenzen-rund-um-bundesasylzentren-nimmt-die-kriminalitaet-zu
- Amnesty International, “Keine Zwangsrückführung von Asylsuchenden nach Äthiopien,” 25 January 2021, https://www.amnesty.ch/de/laender/europa-zentralasien/schweiz/dok/2021/keine-zwangsrueckfuehrung-von-asylsuchenden-nach-aethiopien
- C. Mendoza & L. Wadimoff, “Le renvoi par la Suisse de requérants d'asile éthiopiens est pointé du doigt,” 26 January 2021, RTS, https://www.rts.ch/info/suisse/11928119-le-renvoi-par-la-suisse-de-requerants-d-asile-ethiopiens-est-pointe-du-doigt.html?rts_source=rss_t&fbclid=IwAR1Ucde2dse-6F2oDbHwryfkvX78BKl6coVdUVDFzwd_HVpJFWPO5a4004o
- V. Cherpillod, “Neuchâtel ouvre deux lieux d'accueil pour mieux intégrer ses migrants,” 2 February 2021, RTS, https://www.rts.ch/info/regions/neuchatel/11942820-neuchatel-ouvre-deux-lieux-daccueil-pour-mieux-integrer-ses-migrants.html
- Frambois Detention Centre Seen From Outside in 2011, (Fernand Melgar, "Le directeur de la prison genevoise de Frambois sous enquête administrative," RTS, 3 April 2013, https://www.rts.ch/info/regions/geneve/4790749-le-directeur-de-la-prison-genevoise-de-frambois-sous-enquete-administrative.html)
02 December 2020
In a recent finding, the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) concluded that Switzerland violated provisions in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child when it failed to show due diligence in assessing a child’s best interests and did not take the child’s views into account in a case involving a removal procedure for a family from Azerbaijan. The ruling comes as Swiss authorities are facing increasing legal challenges regarding its detention decisions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. It also comes just a year and a half after Switzerland introduced a controversial new asylum system enabling the country to rapidly process applications.
The CRC case concerned a family of four that had made its way to Switzerland after fleeing their home in Azerbaijan. After a seven-month wait for an asylum hearing in Switzerland, the family reluctantly agreed to withdraw its asylum claim and be voluntarily repatriated. The complainant’s husband was told by his father that it was safe for him to return to Azerbaijan and that he no longer risked incarceration. Upon their return to Azerbaijan, the husband was arrested and the mother arranged to flee to Switzerland again. In May 2018, the mother and her two children, E.A. and U.A., arrived in Ticino and filed a new asylum application. As a result of the persecution and trauma she suffered, the mother’s mental health had worsened. In a report drafted by a psychologist from the Baobab centre, which provided support to the family, it was noted that the mother had developed symptoms of anxiety and depression, insomnia and somatic reactions and that the social network established by the mother and her children during their first stay in Ticino “allowed them to maintain a minimum level of mental and physical well-being.”
However, the asylum request was unsuccessful and Swiss authorities submitted a request to Italy to take charge of the mother and her children, as they had entered the European Union through Italy on an Italian visa. Italian authorities agreed to take charge of the family and so Swiss authorities ordered the removal of the mother with her children. The mother filed an appeal against this decision in July 2018, but the Swiss Federal Administrative Court rejected her appeal. The court ruled that there were no concrete and substantiated indications that the persons concerned would be unable to travel or that the alleged health problems were so serious that the family’s transfer to Italy would be contrary to the requirements of the European Court of Human Rights.
Despite being aware that the children had contracted chickenpox and the risk of contagion had been reported by a doctor, on 12 September 2018, the police picked up the mother and her children from their hotel to carry out their removal from Zurich airport. Officers showed the children an image of forced removal (people being restrained), telling them that if their mother did not cooperate, they would remove them in the same way. The mother suffered panic and anxiety attacks during the removal, which reportedly prompted the police to leave the family at Zurich airport without any money and instruct them to make their own way back to their accommodation in Ticino. The mother thus complained that the Swiss authorities violated their obligation to respect the rights set out under Articles 3 (due diligence in assessing the children’s best interests) and 12 (right of the child to be heard in any judicial or administrative proceedings affecting the child) CRC.
The CRC pointed out that Article 12 does not impose an age limit on the right of the child to express his/her views. In absence of a direct hearing for the children, the situation amounted to a violation of Article 12. Also, the committee credited the argument that Swiss authorities did not take into account the trauma experienced by the children and in consequence, it considered that the national authorities failed to hear E.A. and U.A. and did not show due diligence in assessing the children’s best interests, constituting a violation of Article 3.
The CRC finding is the latest in a string of recent legal challenges involving detention and removal proceedings that have confronted Swiss authorities, mainly stemming from the impact of COVID-19. The group Asylex, which campaigns for the rights of people in administrative detention in Switzerland, has helped spearhead these challenges. As previously reported (see 27 June Switzerland update on this platform), on 9 June, the Swiss Supreme Court handed down a judgment in a case brought by Asylex, stating that due to limitations on the ability to deport people, brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, “detention pending removal” was unlawful during this period. According to Asylex, it has pursued similar argumentation in more than 40 cases between March-June and as of 11 June, more than 30 people had been released. After two successful challenges against the Zurich Migration Office at the Federal Supreme Court in June, Asylex president, Lea Hungerbühler said: “The fact that the Federal Supreme Court has now ruled this way in the two precedent cases is a strong indication that the Zurich Migration Office must change its practice.”
Following the establishment of Switzerland’s new asylum system in March 2019, the Coalition of Independent Asylum Lawyers (Coalition des juristes indépendant-e-s pour le droit d’asile) released a critical assessment of the first year of operation of the new accelerated procedure. As part of the coalition, Asylex argued that the procedure is too quick and superficial, and that there have been numerous problems associated with quality of translations during asylum hearings, complaints of racism, and the placement of asylum seekers in isolation in federal asylum centres.
- Committee on the Rights of the Child, “Views Adopted by the Committee under the Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a Communications Procedure Concerning Communication No.56/2018,” CRC/C/85/D/56/2018, 30 October 2020, https://bit.ly/36uqZNL
- European Legal Network on Asylum, “ELENA Weekly Legal Update: 20 November 2020,” 20 November 2020, https://mailchi.mp/ecre/elena-weekly-legal-update-20-november-2020?e=f781c7c7c6
- Asylex, “Our Work During the COVID-19 Pandemic (Team Detention),” 11 June 2020, https://www.asylex.ch/
- L. Minor and H. Arnet, “Federal Court Complains About the Security Directorate,” Tages Anzeiger, 15 June 2020, https://www.tagesanzeiger.ch/bundesgericht-rueffelt-sicherheitsdirektion-463027476116
- M. Vuilleumier, “Cela Fait 30 Ans que les Pays Européens Essayent d’Accélérer les Procédures d’Asile,” Swiss Info, 26 November 2020, https://www.swissinfo.ch/fre/politique-migratoire_-cela-fait-30-ans-que-les-pays-europ%C3%A9ens-essayent-d-acc%C3%A9l%C3%A9rer-les-proc%C3%A9dures-d-asile-/46167868
- 24 Heures, “Asile: Pas de Détention si le Renvoi est Empêché par le Coronavirus,” 8 October 2020, https://www.24heures.ch/asile-pas-de-detention-si-le-renvoi-est-empeche-par-le-coronavirus-783597632491
- J. Caye, “Diplômée de Harvard, la Président d’ASYLEX, Léa Hungerbühler s’Exprime sur la Procédure d’Asile Suisse,” Le Temps, 4 November 2020, https://blogs.letemps.ch/jasmine-caye/2020/11/04/diplomee-de-harvard-la-presidente-dasylex-lea-hungerbuhler-sexprime-sur-la-procedure-dasile-suisse/
06 August 2020
As the GDP previously reported (see 27 June update), while Swiss authorities did not issue a moratorium on new detention orders during the pandemic, many immigration detainees were released due to the impossibility of conducting returns. This has been confirmed by Amnesty International Switzerland, which informed the GDP that some cantons declared a moratorium on administrative detention orders within the context of Dublin returns, and that some decided to release detainees who had been in immigration detention related to negative Dublin-decisions. According to the rights watchdog, released asylum seekers were placed in “very basic” structures, “where more or less appropriate measures against Covid-19 have been taken (information, distribution of soap, separation of infected people…, depending on the canton and on the responsible persons for the camps).”
Regarding deportations, there was no general policy implemented. Switzerland’s official position has been that individual case assessments are taken to decide whether a deportation is executable within a reasonable time frame.
Immigration detainees are not under specific measures regarding testing, and are subjected to the same regime as the rest of the country, Amnesty reported. Tests are being conducted only on individuals showing one or more Covid-19 symptoms. With the closing of most borders, asylum applications at the borders have no longer been accepted. Emergency measures have been taken regarding the domestic asylum procedures, such as the opening of new shelters to avoid overcrowding.
As Covid-19 cases declined, borders were reopened to members of the Schengen zone. Switzerland has implemented mandatory quarantine for travelers entering the country from a list of several dozen territories and countries, including recently Spain. Individuals who do not follow quarantine rules face a 10,000 Swiss franc fine. Most of the restrictions in the country were lifted in June, with schools and shops reopening.
- Amnesty International Switzerland, Global Detention Project’s Covid-19 survey, July 2020, https://www.amnesty.ch/en
- M. Shields, “Switzerland Expands COVID-19 Quarantine watchlist,” Reuters, 22 July 2020, https://www.theguardian.pe.ca/news/world/switzerland-expands-covid-19-quarantine-watchlist-476185/
- Global Detention Project, "Immigration Detention in Switzlerand," June 2020, https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/europe/switzerland
27 June 2020
Responding to the Global Detention Project Covid-19 survey, AsyLex reported that although Switzerland has not established a moratorium on new immigration detention orders, many immigration detainees have been released because returns are no longer possible. Certain local governments (cantonal authorities) have released all detainees, confirming information provided to the GDP by the Director General of the Geneva Cantonal Population and Migration Office (Office Cantonal de la Population et des Migrations) (see 9 June Switzerland update on this platform), whereas other local authorities have not released anyone. However, all detainees in Dublin procedures were released towards the end of March.
Asylex indicated that for released detainees, no “alternatives to detention” programs were used; instead, according to AsyLex, people were returned to crowded “camps,” referring to “asylum accommodation” (Asylunterkünften) or “asylum centres” (Asylzentren), which they said may lack adequate protections for preventing the spread of Covid-19. AsyLex explained that these places are often underground, with up to 15 people sleeping in one room. Blick TV investigated these facilities and published a video filmed by a detainee showing an overcrowded dormitory where social distancing is impossible to implement (see link below).
Asylex also said that immigration detainees have only been tested for Covid-19 if infection is suspected. In addition, according to the organisation, deportations were not halted as removals to Serbia and Albania took place and potentially to other countries.
On 9 June, the Swiss Supreme Court handed down a judgment in a case brought by AsyLex concerning the detention of a Somali national prior to deportation. The Court found that due to limitations on the ability to deport people, “detention pending removal” was unlawful during this period. AsyLex explained that the law stipulates that to detain people under this provision deportation must be foreseeable, as per Article 76 of the Federal Act on Foreign Nationals and Integration (AIG).
In a statement on their website published on 11 June, AsyLex also mentioned that they presented challenges in more than 40 cases throughout Switzerland during the Covid-19 pandemic, invoking various provisions (Articles 78(6)(a); 80(a)(6); and 80(a)(7)) of the AIG as well as Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights. More than 30 of their clients were released from detention, while other cases are still pending.
- AsyLex, “Success for AsyLex before the Swiss Supreme Court: Detention pending removal is illegal during Covid-19 Pandemic,” 15 June 2020, https://www.facebook.com/AsyLex.ch/photos/a.255631438236828/931441713989127
- 24 Heures, “Le TF Critique la Détention en Vue du Renvoi,” 15 June 2020, https://www.24heures.ch/le-tf-critique-la-detention-en-vue-du-renvoi-352216366834
- AsyLex, “Home: Our Work During the Covid-19 Pandemic,” 11 June 2020, https://www.asylex.ch/?
- AsyLex (Lea Hungerbühler), Global Detention Project Covid-19 Survey, 17 June 2020.
- Blick TV, “Genug Schutz vor Corona?” 20 April 2020, https://www.blick.ch/news/schweiz/zuerich/asylzentrum-genug-schutz-vor-corona-id15853493.html
- Republique et Canton de Genève, Office Cantonal de la Population et des Migrations (Bernard Gut), Global Detention Project Covid-19 Survey, 5 June 2020.
- Image of a Dormitory in Asylum Accommodation, (Blick TV, "Genug Schutz vor Corona?," 20 April 2020, https://www.blick.ch/news/schweiz/zuerich/asylzentrum-genug-schutz-vor-corona-id15853493.html)
09 June 2020
Responding to the Global Detention Project’s Covid-19 survey, the Geneva Cantonal Population and Migration Office (Office Cantonal de la Population et des Migrations or OCPM) reported that while Geneva had not established a moratorium on new immigration detention orders, no new orders have been issued since the end of April, owing to the impossibility of deporting people. The OCPM also confirmed that all immigration detainees in the canton had been released towards the end of April by orders of the OCPM and the Geneva first instance administrative tribunal.
The Migration Office stated that two immigration detainees had tested positive for Covid-19 and that they had been placed in isolation in the Champ-Dollon prison in Geneva. One of the positive Covid-19 cases received medical assistance at the Cantonal Hospital (HUG) and the other remained in isolation in prison and was serving a prison sentence.
Immigration detainees placed in the Frambois immigration detention centre since the end of May have not been tested for Covid-19 upon entry. As former criminal prisoners subject to deportation orders, the protocol followed requires the nurse to contact the facility where these persons were previously detained prior to their transfer to Frambois in order to enquire about their health and to know whether a Covid-19 test has been undertaken. At present, it seems that only persons showing symptoms of the disease are tested in criminal facilities.
- Republique et Canton de Genève, Office Cantonal de la Population et des Migrations (Bernard Gut), Global Detention Project Covid-19 Survey, 5 June 2020.
- Champ-Dollon Prison in Geneva, (EaG, "Protestation à Champ-Dollon: les détenu-e-s doivent aussi être protégé-e-s face au Covid-19," 3 April 2020, https://eag-ge.ch/mutinerie-a-champ-dollon-les-detenus-doivent-aussi-etre-proteges-face-au-covid-19/)
28 May 2020
Since the beginning of April, certain immigration detention centres, including the Frambois and Favra centres in Geneva, have been closed. Around 30 people were detained in the centres at the time. Reports suggest that they may have been assigned to a temporary residence or may be prohibited from entering a specific perimeter or region. The situation in Geneva is complicated by the fact that detention spaces in the canton are shared with other cantons as part of an agreement, or “concordat.” However, according to Tribune de Genève, Geneva is taking charge of all detainees previously held in the Vaud and Neuchâtel cantons.
In Bern, certain immigration detainees have been released by order of the court. Nonetheless, the Director of Security of Bern rejected a request to release all immigration detainees and stated that every case is examined individually. At the end of March, it was reported that around a dozen asylum seekers and seven employees had been infected with the virus in the federal asylum centres.
The halt of deportations may also have legal consequences, as reported by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. As authorities have a period of six months to return rejected asylum seekers in Dublin procedures, depending upon the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, numerous deportations may no longer be feasible. As stated by Marcel Suter from the cantonal migration authorities, “if returns are stopped for a long time, it is difficult to get them going again.”
Migrant workers in irregular situations in Switzerland (estimated at 100,000) have been left in a precarious situation due to the coronavirus crisis. Various organisations and support centres in Zurich, Lucerne, Basel, Bern, Geneva, and Lausanne have been providing food and food vouchers. However, requests for advice and financial support have continued to flood in. Bea Schwager, head of the Zurich centre SPAZ (Sans-Papiers Anlaufstelle Zürich), said that “in Zurich, over 400 people have called us for financial aid to cover essential expenses during confinement.” She added that the organisation had “received about CHF 100,000 but much of that money has already been spent.” In Lausanne, before the crisis, the Protestant church gave out 80 food rations, whereas today, it distributes 350. In mid-April, the Protestant Social Centre and the Vaud Collective Support of Sans Papiers, together with other organisations, wrote to the federal, cantonal, and municipal authorities requesting financial aid and other support for the most vulnerable. For now however, no response has been provided.
On 1 April, the Swiss Federal Council passed a legal order (ordonnance Covid-19 asile) regarding the measures taken with respect to asylum in view of the Covid-19 crisis. Article 6 of the order allows the Swiss Migration Secretariat (Secrétariat d’Etat aux Migrations, or SEM) to conduct an interview without a legal representative being present with the asylum seeker. In addition, following a review of the asylum legislation in March 2019, time limits for appeals against negative asylum decisions had been reduced from 30 days to 7. The order has now amended this time-frame and re-established a 30 day period for people to respond to decisions by the SEM.
In some of the country’s prisons, alternatives to incarceration have been implemented. In Bern, 27 vulnerable prisoners that were accommodated in open or semi-open prisons have been released. In addition, sentences of less than 30 days for prisoners that “do not present any risk for society” have been suspended. In the Champ-Dollon prison in Geneva, the number of inmates has been reduced from 650 to 560 as certain detainees have been assigned to house arrest, given electronic tags and others have been given reporting obligations. As of 15 April, authorities had confirmed that there were 35 people that tested positive in prisons, including 33 staff members.
- Tribune de Genève, “Des Détenus Libérés de Détention Administrative,” 18 April 2020, https://www.tdg.ch/suisse/detenus-liberes-detention-administrative/story/13892640
- P. Islas, “Coronavirus Leaves Irregular Migrants in Switzerland in Precarious Situation,” Swissinfo, 5 May 2020, https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/covid-19_coronavirus-leaves-irregular-migrants-in-switzerland-in-precarious-situation/45735958
- Conseil Fédéral Suisse, Ordonnance sur les Mesures Prises dans le Domaine de l’Asile en Raison du Coronavirus (Ordonnance Covid-19 Asile), 1 April 2020, https://www.admin.ch/opc/fr/classified-compilation/20200924/index.html
- L. Jorio, “Prisoners in Switzerland Stay Behind Bars Despite Coronavirus,” Swissinfo, 15 April 2020, https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/no-amnesty_prisoners-in-switzerland-stay-behind-bars-despite-coronavirus/45686672
- T. Gafafer, “Die Schweiz Stoppt Ausschaffungen von Asylbewerbern - erster Corona," Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 26 March 2020, https://www.nzz.ch/schweiz/die-schweiz-stoppt-ausschaffungen-von-asylbewerbern-erster-corona-fall-im-bundeszentrum-zuerich-ld.1548486#back-register
- Bunkbeds in a Dormitory of a Federal Asylum Centre, (Anthony Anex, Keystone, "Die Schweiz stoppt Ausschaffungen von Asylbewerbern – erster Corona-Fall im Bundeszentrum Zürich," Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 26 March 2020, https://www.nzz.ch/schweiz/die-schweiz-stoppt-ausschaffungen-von-asylbewerbern-erster-corona-fall-im-bundeszentrum-zuerich-ld.1548486?reduced=true#back-register)
04 April 2020
Swiss authorities have temporarily closed some immigration detention facilities, and detainees who have contracted the virus have been placed in isolation in prisons.
In the early stages of the virus’ spread within the country, three Covid-19 cases were detected within federal asylum centres (Chevrilles, Basel, and Bern). Transfers between such facilities were subsequently reduced, but the State Secretariat for Migration (‘SEM’) decided against introducing systematic testing for Covid-19.
As cases continued to rise within the country, various NGOs and official bodies urged the adoption of additional measures to protect vulnerable persons. On 18 March, Solidarité Sans Frontières’ called for several measures, including: access to health for asylum seekers; the release of immigration detainees; and the suspension of deportations. On 20 March, staff working at the Basel federal asylum centre criticised the lack of protective measures within the facility. The employees stated that approximately 200 refugees lived in the centre, most of them sleeping in 12 person rooms, and they were practically “shoulder to shoulder when serving food.” The SEM denied these allegations and said that it was following the Federal Office of Health’s recommendations in asylum centres.
On 23 March 2020, a detainee at the Frambois immigration detention centre tested positive and was thus placed in isolation at the Champ-Dollon prison in Geneva. A staff member also contracted the virus, and three other detainees were placed in isolation at the Geneva prison. The Frambois and Favra detention centres in Geneva were temporarily closed and detainees released.
During a protest in early April at the Champ-Dollon prison in Geneva, some 40 prisoners refused to return to their cells in the afternoon protesting against the conditions of their detention due to the measures taken to avoid the spread of Covid-19. The prisoners later complied with orders and returned to their cells.
- Solidarité Sans Frontières, “Coronavirus: des mesures de protection pour tout le monde,” accessed on 1 April 2020, https://www.sosf.ch/fr/sujets/asile/informations-articles/appel-aux-autorites.html
- La Liberté, “Coronavirus – Trois cas de contamination dans les centres fédéraux d’asile,” 13 March 2020, https://www.laliberte.ch/info-regionale/fribourg/coronavirus-trois-cas-de-contamination-dans-les-centres-federaux-d-asile-557227
- M. Sandrin,“Null Schutz: Mitarbeitende üben scharfe Kritik am Bund,” SRF, 20 March 2020, https://www.srf.ch/news/schweiz/coronavirus-im-asylzentrum-null-schutz-mitarbeitende-ueben-scharfe-kritik-am-bund
- A. Keystone, “Un homme en détention administrative à Genève atteint du Covid-19,” Radio Lac, 23 March 2020, https://www.radiolac.ch/actualite/un-homme-en-detention-administrative-a-geneve-atteint-du-covid-19/
- F. Amos, “Des Détenus de Champ-Dollon Protestent Contre les Mesures Anti-Covid-19,” RTS, 3 April 2020, https://www.rts.ch/info/regions/geneve/11221037-des-detenus-de-champ-dollon-protestent-contre-les-mesures-anti-covid-19.html
- Global Detention Project, "Immigration Detention in Switzerland," https://www.globaldetentionproject.org/countries/europe/switzerland
Last updated: June 2020
Switzerland has one of the highest percentages of non-citizen (or “foreign national”) residents in the world, which by 2018 numbered more than two million people, or nearly 25 percent of the entire population. Reasons for this high percentage are the country’s high immigration rates as well as challenges in acquiring citizenship, which is not automatically granted to people born in Switzerland. The Swiss Federal Statistical Office reported in 2016 that nearly 400,000 foreign nationals were born in Switzerland, which made up about 20 percent of the country’s non-citizen population. What is more, nearly half of Switzerland’s non-citizen residents have lived at least 10 years in the country.
Immigration and asylum policies are the subject of heated political debates in the country and have also received international scrutiny. For instance, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), whose headquarters are located in Geneva, described the country’s 2005 asylum law as “one of the strictest pieces of legislation in Europe.” More recently, in 2018, Switzerland opted not to join 160 other countries in adopting the non-binding Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, even though the country had played an important role crafting the compact.
Switzerland’s detention policies have been impacted by these national debates. However, an equally important influence is the fact that “coercive measures,” as detention procedures are called in Swiss law, are applied at the local (or cantonal) level rather than at the federal level, a system similar to Germany’s. This can create varying degrees of enforcement between different parts of Switzerland. It also may be an important reason that Switzerland, unlike nearly all other countries in Europe, continues to make widespread use of prisons for immigration detention purposes. Of the more than 30 dozen detention sites used for applying coercive measures in Switzerland, the Global Detention Project has identified only five that are specialised immigration facilities.
In 2018, there were reportedly 3,284 total detention orders, the majority of which concerned “detention pending deportation” (Article 76 FNA), with 1,895 orders (57.7 percent), followed by Dublin detention (Article 76a FNA) with 1,213 orders (i.e. 36.9 percent). The numbers of people placed in detention have steadily decreased during the past decade, down from a high of 7,540 in 2011. In 2018, the top nationalities of detainees were, by order of importance, Algeria, Nigeria, Albania, Morocco, and Kosovo.
For more information, see Global Immigration Detention Observatory, “Switzerland Immigration Detention Data Profile.”
 Federal Statistical Office, “Foreign population” (website), https://www.bfs.admin.ch/bfs/en/home/statistics/population/migration-integration/foreign.html
 O. Lavoustet, “La Suisse Dépasse les 8,5 Millions d’Habitants,” Le Temps, 9 April 2019, https://www.letemps.ch/suisse/suisse-depasse-85-millions-dhabitants; D. Q. Nguyen, “Qui Sont ces 25% d’Etrangers en Suisse?” Swissinfo, 10 November 2017, https://www.swissinfo.ch/fre/societe/s%C3%A9rie-migration-partie-1-_deux-millions-d-%C3%A9trangers-en-suisse-mais-qui-sont-ils/42409190
 Swissinfo, "Defining the 25% foreign population in Switzerland,” 19 November 2017, https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/society/migration-series-part-1-_who-are-the-25-foreign-population-in-switzerland/42412156
 UNHCR, “Switzerland: UNHCR Deeply Regrets Adoption of New Asylum Law,” 18 March 2005, https://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2005/3/423ab71a25/switzerland-unhcr-deeply-regrets-adoption-new-asylum-law.html
 Swissinfo, "Why do we need the Global Compact for Migration?” 11 December 2019, https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/politics/explainer_why-do-we-need-the-global-compact-for-migration-/44572400
 State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), “Datenerhebung Zwangsmassnahmen (DAZ) ganze Schweiz 2018,” 18 January 2019, provided to the GDP by Philippe Feliser (SEM), Email exchange with Agnese Zucca (GDP), 7 June 2019.
 Federal Office for Migration (P. Feliser), Responses to Global Detention Project/Access Info Questionnaire, 9 and 24 October 2013.
 State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), “Datenerhebung Zwangsmassnahmen (DAZ) ganze Schweiz 2018,” 18 January 2019, provided to the GDP by Philippe Feliser (SEM), Email exchange with Agnese Zucca (GDP), 7 June 2019.