Country Report: Overview of the main changes since the previous report update Last updated: 14/05/21
The report was last updated in April 2020.
- Towards completion of old procedures: Asylum applications lodged prior to the reform of 1 March 2019 are still handled under the ancient procedure, but the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) has examined most of them. A total of 6,340 decisions on old cases were issued in 2020 and 447 old procedures were pending as of 31 December 2020.
- New procedure in full regime: All asylum applications lodged after 1 March 2019 are now handled according to the asylum reform either in the Dublin procedure, the accelerated procedure (which should not exceed 140 days including appeal and removal procedure) or the extended procedure (which should not exceed one year including appeal and removal procedure). Asylum seekers subjected to to the extended procedures are attributed to cantons, while accelerated procedures are carried out entirely in federal asylum centres. In 2020, the SEM took 29% of the decisions according to the new procedure within a Dublin procedure, 49% within an accelerated procedure and 22% within an extended procedure. In June 2020, the Federal Administrative Court ruled that, in light of the different applicable appeal deadlines, a wrong assessment of whether a case is “complex” (i.e. thereby being channelled into the extended procedure or not) may constitute a violation of the right to an effective remedy, and clarified the criteria to define a case as “complex”.
- Length of the procedure: The average duration of asylum procedures has significantly decreased with the entry into force of the asylum reform. In 2020, the average duration of the first instance procedures (excluding those conducted under the ancient procedure) was 54 days for Dublin procedures, 64 for accelerated procedures and 221 for extended procedures. By way of comparison, the average duration of the first instance procedure prior to the reform was 466 days in 2018. However, the duration of the first instance procedure in 2020 remains significantly higher than those foreseen in law (namely a maximum of 29 days for accelerated procedures and approx. 80 days in the extended procedure until issuing of the decision).
- Measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic: The pandemic has not triggered any suspension of the asylum procedure and registration remained open at all times throughout 2020. The SEM only suspended personal interviews during two weeks at the end of March until the rooms were equipped with plexiglass and masks were at disposal. The Ordinance on Measures Taken in the Field of Asylum due to Coronavirus (Ordinance COVID-19 Asylum), in force since April 2020, foresees the limitation of the number of persons present in the same room during the interview. The SEM officer and the asylum seeker are in the same room, while the interpreter, the minute keeper and the legal advisor can be situated in another room and participate in the interview through appropriate technical means (mainly audio transmission). The Ordinance, which will be in force at least up until 30 June 2021, has extended the time limit for lodging an appeal from 7 working days to 30 days for decisions taken under the accelerated procedure. This extension does not apply to inadmissibility decisions, including Dublin decisions, for which the appeal still needs to be filed within five working days.
- Legal assistance: The asylum reform in March 2019 introduced a mandatory access to free legal assistance at first instance to all applicants, regardless of the applicable procedure. Each asylum seeker is thus assigned a legal representative who is present during interviews. Legal protection is provided by several organisations mandated by the SEM in the federal asylum centres. In 2020, the Coalition of Independent Jurists for the right of asylum has published an independent evaluation of the first year of implementation of the legal aid scheme, raising some concerns over the quality and independence of legal assistance in federal asylum centres. Supported by statistical data, the Coalition concluded that the mandated legal representatives too frequently revoke their mandate, as almost one third of the appeals admitted by the Court or resulted in a referral to the SEM for further instruction was filed by external representatives or without legal representation. Moreover, applicants who lodged their asylum claim prior to 1 March 2019 do not fall under the new legal aid scheme and therefore do not systematically have access to legal assistance. Similarly, asylum seekers who lodge their application in detention or prison are not entitled to legal representation in their asylum procedure, as described further below.
- Airport procedure suspended in Zurich: The airport procedure was suspended in Zurich from March 2021 and at least until end of the year. Persons expressing the will to claim asylum were oriented towards the federal asylum centre of Zurich. On the contrary, the airport procedure continued in Geneva, although the number of applications at the airport was very low in 2020 as a result of COVID-19 and travel restrictions.
- Dublin transfers reduced: Dublin transfers were not officially suspended in Switzerland due to the pandemic and related travel restrictions. However, in practice, transfers to most countries were not possible during spring 2020 and partly during the rest of the year. The number of transfers has progressively increased throughout the year, reaching a total of 941 outgoing transfers and 877 incoming transfers in 2020, compared to 1,724 and 1,164 respectively in 2019.
- Reduction capacity and temporary federal asylum centres: In order to comply with COVID-19 measures, the SEM has reduced the capacity of the federal asylum centres to 50% and then 60% of their usual capacity in 2020. During 2020, there was a higher number of cases in which the length of stay in federal centres went significantly beyond the foreseen maximum of 140 days. This was due to the fact that during several months, the attributions to the cantons were significantly restricted because cantonal structures were already at their maximum capacity under the new measures related to COVID-19. The SEM had to open a few temporary facilities to cope with this situation.
- COVID-19 measures in reception: Masks were accessible to asylum seekers in federal asylum centres within a few weeks after the outbreak of the pandemic. An obligation to wear them was also introduced outside the dormitories. Information videos and posters were put at disposal of the asylum seekers and the temperature was measured after every exit from the centre. However, distancing rules can hardly be observed in collective centres. Asylum seekers can be set in quarantine and isolated in single rooms when they are tested positive, have symptoms or have had contacts with infected persons. In a few cases, reception centres have been set in quarantine for approximately two weeks without any possibility to exit the centre for the residents. As of January 2021, 230 asylum seekers tested positive to COVID-19 have been registered; none of them has died.
- Violence in reception: During 2020, there were a number of cases in which violence escalated in the federal asylum centres. The media reported excessive use of physical force by security personnel. Several criminal proceedings were initiated against security staff, with allegations of disproportionate or arbitrary violence and abuse of authority. The SEM is currently finalising a violence prevention concept to be applied to all federal asylum centres and is planning to introduce a complaint mechanism within federal centres. On 5 May 2021, the SEM announced that a former federal judge was mandated to carry out an independent investigation on these incidents. Moreover, the SEM has suspended 14 security agents working in the federal asylum centres according to the media.
- Re-opening of specialized facility “Les Verrières”: The new legislation of March 2019 introduced a legal basis for the creation of specific centres for uncooperative asylum seekers. i.e. those who endanger public security and order or who seriously disrupt the normal operation of the federal asylum centres may be accommodated there for two weeks (extendable to one month). During 2020, no such facility was in function since the only centre of this kind was temporarily closed on 1 September 2019. In February 2021, however, the SEM has decided to re-open it.
- Identification of vulnerabilities and access to psychiatric care: The identification of vulnerabilities, including psychological problems and psychiatric diseases, remains a significant challenge. A psychological screening at arrival in the centre could be a useful measure and also a tool to prevent suicides. According to the National Commission for the Prevention of Torture (NCPT), access to psychiatric care in federal asylum centres is limited in practice to the most acute situations. It recommends an early identification of psychiatric and trauma-related problems and orientation towards the competent services already during the stay in federal asylum centres. The NCPT also reports that a translation service per phone is available to the medical staff, but the latter rarely uses it.
Detention of asylum seekers
- Lack of access to legal representation in detention: Under the new asylum procedure, all asylum seekers are systematically assigned a legal representative. This is not the case, in practice, for people lodging asylum applications while in detention or in prison. Despite case law of the Federal Administrative Court finding that legal representation must be guaranteed in those cases, the SEM still does not systematically provide for legal representation in the asylum procedure. Access to legal advice and representation concerning the ordering of immigration detention also remains a critical point as national law does not provide for legal representation in detention procedures and access to legal advice is very limited in practice.
- Immigration detention in dedicated facilities: Following an amendment to the Foreign Nationals and Integration Act (FNIA), the Federal Supreme Court ruled in March 2020 that detention for immigration related purposes must take place in facilities specifically dedicated and conceived for this purpose and that detention in a non-specialised facility – even in a separated section – is only admissible for a short time, in exceptional and well-founded cases. In practice, however, the administrative detention of asylum seekers and other foreigners in prisons that are also holding prisoners under the penal code – usually in separated areas – is still a very frequent solution adopted by cantons.
- Release due to COVID-19: During 2020, several detained persons have been released following a decision of cantonal administrative authorities, a judicial review procedure or a request for release. The ground for release was mainly that enforcement of removal was not foreseeable due to the pandemic and related travel limitations. In some cantons, all detained persons were released at the beginning of the pandemic. This was the case in Basel-Stadt and in the French-speaking cantons of Geneva, Vaud and Neuchâtel. Some cantons released Dublin detainees only, while others released only detainees with no criminal record. There were a number of judgements that ruled that detention pending deportation or coercive detention was unlawful in single cases since removal was not enforceable in foreseeable future.
- Detention conditions during COVID-19: During 2020 and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were significant restrictions on freedoms and rights of detained persons in the different detention facilities. In the detention facility at Zurich airport, for example, visitors were not allowed during several months, occupation programmes were significantly reduced, the fitness room was closed and newly detained people had to spend the first 10 days of their detention in quarantine.
Content of international protection
- Cessation of temporary admissions for Eritrean nationals: In 2018, the Swiss Parliament had tasked the SEM with the review of the temporary admission of 3,400 Eritrean nationals. This task was completed in 2020. The SEM has concluded that removal was reasonable and ceased the temporary admission of 83 Eritrean nationals (2.4%).
- Obstacles to family reunification: At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, family reunification was suspended from 18 March 2020 to 8 June 2020. In addition, many embassies around the world suspended their activities, thereby hindering the access to family reunification procedures. Moreover, those would received an entry authorisation from SEM still faced difficulties in reaching Switzerland due to travel restrictions. The situation improved during the course of the year.
- Travel restrictions for persons with refugee status: Since 1 April 2020, the Foreign Nationals and Integration Act (FNIA) includes a provision prohibiting recognised refugees to travel not only to their country of origin, but also to its neighbouring countries, when there is a justified suspicion that the ban on travel to the home country will be disregarded. This provision entered in force but was still not implemented as of January 2021. It allows the SEM to issue collective travel bans to certain neighbouring countries for all refugees coming from one specific country.