Director of the Swiss Federal Office for Migration
Switzerland’s asylum and migration
policy and the Bern Initiative
Ü Eurasylum Ltd: With an average annual inflow of around 20,000 asylum applicants since the early 2000s, and the admission of over 96,000 new immigrants in 2004, Switzerland can be considered as a major host country relative to its size and population. In 2004, Switzerland was home to over 1.6 million foreign nationals, or 21.7% of the country’s total population. The Swiss Federal Office for Migration was established in January 2005, following a merge between the Federal Office for Refugees (FOR) and the Federal Office of Immigration, Integration and Emigration (IMES). This new authority regulates all aspects of entry, residence, protection and integration, at Federal, cantonal and communal levels. Can you briefly guide us through Switzerland’s overall policy priorities and programme responses in the field of migration and asylum today, including as regards migration management policies integrating criteria such as demographic and skill imbalances, and issues of integration into Swiss society?
Ü Eduard Gnesa: First of all, let me thank you for giving me the opportunity to answer these questions. As you pointed out, the new Office is the result of a merger between the IMES and the FOR. This change has brought many advantages. The FOM is under the Federal Department of Justice and Police and although there has been cooperation in the FDJP in the past, we have now brought all migration and refugee issues under one roof.
The Swiss migration policy pursues the achievement of three important goals these goals serve as guidelines for our policy development:
– Prosperity: Switzerland’s economy needs manpower, the science sector depends on international exchanges and, very importantly, a modest and controlled population growth will help alleviate possible problems regarding the future financing of Switzerland’s old-age pension scheme.
– Solidarity: Switzerland is proud of its humanitarian commitment for the migration sector this means our commitment to offer protection to people fleeing political persecution or armed conflicts, but also the possibility of family reunion for workers or the provision of temporary admission in cases of personal hardship.
– Security: Switzerland’s population has a right to live in an environment where security and public order reign. In order to achieve this goal, it is important to integrate migrants fully into Swiss society, but also to fight abuses caused by illegal migration, or by criminal activities, efficiently.
Among the main challenges, as I see it, are abuses of the asylum laws that lead to security problems and result in high costs. About 80% of asylum-seekers do not present any travel documents or proof of identity. A large number of asylum-seekers make use of services provided by people smugglers. Illegal work, causing great losses in government revenues and contributing to unemployment, certainly represents another challenge for us. Of course, Swiss nationals also undertake illegal work, but in relation to foreign nationals it is for the Swiss Federal Office for Migration to contribute to the development of solutions to this problem. Another difficulty that we are currently facing is unsatisfactory cooperation with some countries of origin with regard to the readmission of rejected asylum seekers.
In order to meet these challenges a number of priority measures have been developed. These include: strengthening of controls at the borders and within the country; standardisation of Cantonal practices in the enforcement of the asylum laws, and laws relating to foreign nationals; and increased checks on illegal work and illegal residence inside Switzerland.
Today, one quarter of Switzerland’s workforce consists of foreign nationals, amounting to approximately one million foreign workers. There are also still sectors within the labour market especially in domains that require higher levels of professional qualification which cannot be met by local supply.
Taking into account the already significant number of foreign nationals residing here, Switzerland pursues a system of controlled migration. Permits are primarily issued to well qualified individuals and specialists if a vacancy with work and salary conditions meeting the average local and economic sector offerings – cannot be filled through the Swiss and EU/EFTA labour market.
This policy has fulfilled its goals over the past two years, and most noticeably on the labour market. Immigration is controlled and influenced in such a way that foreign nationals with a long-term aim of living in Switzerland can be integrated into society in the best possible ways.
Besides labour migration and family reunion, refugees and asylum seekers represent the other major group of migrants to Switzerland a group that has dominated public debate over recent years. In 2004, we received 14,248 asylum applications. Compared with the number of asylum applications in 2003, this represents a drop of 32.3% (6,789 applications) – a trend that has continued this year and that can also be observed in other European countries.
Among the reasons for this sharp decline are the fact that we no longer provide social benefits to asylum seekers whose applications have been refused without examining the substance of the case and that we now process asylum claims within much shorter periods.
There are other measures that we are trying to develop and, currently, the Federal Parliament is working on revision of the Asylum law. The new measures that are being discussed include the creation of a new enforcement detention for non-compliance, as well as the withdrawal of social benefits to all rejected asylum-seekers.
People recognised as refugees are placed on an equal footing with the indigenous population in terms of social assistance. Their professional and social integration is promoted by means of specific measures within the scope of social assistance for refugees. It is very difficult today for unskilled workers to find jobs, so that approximately 50% of asylum seekers and refugees depend on social benefits.
As I have said at the beginning, integration is another very important part of our work. It is our main goal to integrate migrants effectively and quickly into our society. The federal and Cantonal authorities provide measures to encourage integration, but migrants are also expected to make efforts of their own towards this. In this respect, great importance is attached to coordination at the federal level as well as between the Cantons and federal authorities.
Swiss integration policy focuses on the following aspects:
1. Structural integration – which means equal access to public institutions such as schools and hospitals, but also elimination of discrimination, for example in professional education and on the job market.
2. Social and cultural integration, which is supported financially by the Swiss Confederation. The Federal Commission for Foreigners defines priorities for areas to be supported financially, i.e. language courses for mothers of young children combined with child care; community projects enhancing the cohabitation of resident and immigrant communities; and administers the programme.
3. Political integration. This means first of all naturalisation, but can also include other forms of political participation, mainly on municipal level.
Of course, there is also a more international component of our migration policy. Migration is not limited to immigration control, return or integration of migrants, it is also linked to other important fields, such as development an issue of increasing importance. It is therefore essential for us to coordinate our activities with other governmental actors, in particular the Political Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). In the past this cooperation has worked extremely well, for example through our close coordination regarding the return of Kosovan asylum seekers in the late nineties. This close cooperation will continue in the future.
Ü Eurasylum Ltd: With the enlargement of the EU on May 1, 2004, the existing bilateral agreements between Switzerland and the EU were extended, automatically, to the new member states. The only exception was the agreement on free movement of persons of 1999, for which amendments were negotiated with the EU. In an additional protocol, a separate interim agreement was agreed for the new Eastern European member states, establishing a transitional regime consisting of a step-by-step and controlled opening of the Swiss employment market for workers from these new member states. In January 2004, a report on illegal migration commissioned by the Minister of Justice to your Office, the Federal Police Office and the Border Guards Authority resulted in a series of key recommendations, which included: reinforced controls on persons at the borders and within the country; standardisation of cantonal practices in the enforcement of asylum law and foreign nationals law; increased checks on illicit work and illicit residence within Switzerland; programmes for the fight against crime and violence as a focal point of Switzerland’s integration promotion measures; and integration of biometric data into travel documents (visas and identity cards) for foreign nationals. Although estimates are difficult to establish, it is usually considered that Switzerland is home to around 90,000 foreigners in an irregular situation. Considering that your country does not have any common borders with any non-EU member state, how would you characterise Switzerland’s evolving efforts to contain growing illegal migration and human smuggling/trafficking activity and in which particular areas has cooperation with EU member states, and participation in relevant EU coordination mechanisms, become essential to such efforts?
Ü Eduard Gnesa: Switzerland’s efforts to contain irregular migration take place on different levels. Take as a current example our cooperation with the EU: On 5 June 2005, Swiss citizens voted in favour of participation in the Schengen/Dublin system. This will certainly enable us to control more effectively the flow of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. Representatives of my Office are already currently gaining firsthand experiences by participating actively in the different EU Committees and expert groups related to Schengen / Dublin.
Then there are activities at a bilateral level. Since the early nineties we have concluded over 30 readmission agreements with countries of origin and transit.
In addition, there are our multilateral activities. Through our relations with international organisations, such as the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), we participate in international efforts, developed to deal with problems of irregular migration. The exchange of statistical data through the International Governmental Consultations (IGC) has also been of crucial benefit for us. And, of course, we are very interested in all newly developed initiatives in Europe, such as the General Directors’ Immigration Services Conference.
Regarding human trafficking and smuggling I would like to add that Switzerland signed the additional protocols to the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime regarding human trafficking and smuggling in April 2002. In the same year a focal point for coordinating efforts to combat human trafficking was created within the Ministry of Justice and Police, which brings together all departments and offices involved. The Swiss Coordination Unit against Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants (KSMM) has been incorporated into the Federal Office of Police. Its task is to fight and prevent human trafficking and smuggling in Switzerland effectively, with the aim of protecting the victims and prosecuting the perpetrators.
Ü Eurasylum Ltd: At the International Symposium on Migration, in June 2001, your Office launched the so-called Berne Initiative. The Berne Initiative is a States-owned consultative process that aims to promote better management of migration at the regional and global levels through co-operation between States. As a process, the Berne Initiative enables governments from around the world to share their policy priorities, identify their long-term interests in migration, and exploit new opportunities for the development of a common approach to migration management, based on notions of co-operation, partnership, comprehensiveness, balance and predictability. The most important outcome of the Berne Initiative is a policy framework which aims to facilitate cooperation between States in the management of the movement of people in a human and orderly way. This policy framework, entitled the International Agenda for Migration Management, is currently being finalised through the organisation, by the Swiss government, and with the active support of IOM, of regional consultations in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe. Can you describe, briefly, the main benefits and challenges of the Berne Initiative to date, including its possible effect on improving cooperation from the countries of origin, and the way in which the Initiative has interacted with other migration management and cooperation mechanisms promoted by other regional and international agencies?
Ü Eduard Gnesa: At the outset of the Berne Initiative (BI) there was the realisation that although migration has become an established feature of contemporary social, political and economic life and is, by definition, a transnational phenomenon that presents major challenges for all actors concerned , there exists no comprehensive and harmonised system on the basis of which States can manage international migration through enhanced international cooperation. The important goal of the BI was therefore to facilitate inter-state cooperation, by enabling an active dialogue between countries of origin, of transit and of destination. When the BI was launched, Government representatives emphasised a strong interest in exchanging experience, problems and perspectives on migration issues, generating a common undertanding of different aims, and finding common interests. It was also pointed out that the process should take existing regional cooperation mechanisms, such as consultative initiatives, like the Puebla or the Bali process, into account and transfer such mechanisms onto a global level.
Once the process started, more and more Governments showed a keen interest in contributing to the elaboration of a framework for international cooperation on migration. In consultation with Governments and international organisations it was decided to draft a reference system which provided an overview of common understandings on migration management, as well as listing in a comprehensive manner effective practices in the field of migration. The aim was to produce a working tool on migration management that will assist government policy makers and migration practitioners in building capacity to develop effective national migration policy, legislation and appropriate administrative structures, as well as effective inter-state cooperation on migration management.
In preparation for the elaboration of this document, entitled The International Agenda for Migration Management (IAMM), we passed various milestones:
– Publication of an expert study on Migration and International Legal Norms in May 2003
– Organisation of four regional consultations in Addis Ababa for Africa, in Budapest for Europe and Central Asia, in Guilin for Asia and the Pacific and in Santiago de Chile for the Americas in 2004.
– Organisation of the Berne II Conference in Berne on 16 17 December 2004. Attended by some 300 participants, the Conference allowed for the presentation of the final IAMM.
The final IAMM is a practical and non-binding document, fully respecting the sovereignty of states in the field of migration management. It consists of two essential components:
– a set of common understandings outlining fundamental shared assumptions and principles underlying migration management, and
– an accompanying set of effective practices on a comprehensive range of migration issues drawing on the actual, practical experience of Governments.
To our great pleasure, the IAMM was welcomed by Governments worldwide as a common reference document, mapping out the constituent elements of a comprehensive migration policy strategy and as a basis for inter-state cooperation – at the bilateral, regional and global level. Moreover, participants at the Berne II Conference elaborated a set of recommendations on follow-up activities of the BI. The major recommendations are:
– The IAMM should be made available to the Global Commission on International Migration and to the United Nations General Assembly for its planned 2006 High Level Debate.
– International Organisations, in particular IOM, are invited to assist Governments, at their request, to put the IAMM into use at national, regional and global levels, for example through the organisation of capacity-building workshops on specific policy themes.
– Technical assistance and financing for activities contemplated in The International Agenda for Migration Management should be explored through bilateral and multilateral cooperation mechanisms.
Clearly, we are proud of the success of the BI process, and its benefits to date are evident. The BI has successfully gathered government representatives from all world regions as equal partners and has enabled an active dialogue between countries of origin, transit and destination. We have elaborated the process in close cooperation with migration experts from international organisations, such as IOM, the UNHCR, ICMPD, ILO and the GCIM, and in consultation with the European Commission. We were therefore able to draw from the knowledge and expertise developed in various existing regional processes, which focus on enhanced cooperation in the field of migration management. The process has produced a document that will be disseminated all over the world, and that has been hailed as a practical and useful working and training tool for all migration stakeholders. We have made the IAMM available to the GCIM and it will be reflected in its report to the UN Secretary General in October 2005. And, in line with the recommendations made at the Berne II Conference, we have commissioned IOM to organise capacity building workshops on migration management. A first workshop was successfully organised in South Africa and a second workshop will be held in Nigeria in November 2005, as well as a migration law course based on the BI process at the International Institute for Humanitarian Law in San Remo in September 2005. The BI process has proved that true partnerships in managing migration at the bilateral and multilateral level can and must be formed, building on continued exchanges of experience, promotion of mutual understanding and cooperation. We are committed to this idea and will therefore further contemplate the development of technical assistance in the field of migration management.