The reception system is organised in two phases: during the first phase – which should not exceed 140 days – asylum applicants are accommodated in federal asylum centres; while upon allocation to a canton, their accommodation is managed at the cantonal level.
Federal asylum centres are of two sorts: each one of the six asylum regions has one centre with processing facilities where the first stages of the procedure are carried out, and one or more centres without processing facilities (so-called “departure centres”) that are mainly used for those persons whose application has been dismissed or rejected and for whom the authorities are organizing a Dublin transfer or removal.
A transfer to cantonal facilities occurs: a) when a person gets a positive decision or a temporary admission within an accelerated procedure; b) when the extended procedure is ordered; c) when a person is accommodated in a federal asylum centre for more than 140 days, even if his or her application has been dismissed or rejected.
Cantons are in charge of their own reception centres. Usually, asylum seekers and beneficiaries of protection will be first accommodated in collective centres, and in a second stage in shared apartments or private apartments for families. The management of reception centres at cantonal level is very often entrusted to NGOs or private companies. For those rejected asylum seekers who have lost their right to social assistance, the cantons provide for emergency aid shelters (see Forms and levels of material reception conditions).
While the Federal Supreme Court held that reception conditions in a civil protection shelter do not violate the human dignity of persons under emergency aid, the situation in such shelters seems largely unsatisfactory for asylum seekers who are still in a procedure. Single men are mostly affected, although there are sometimes also families who are accommodated in bunkers.
Below is an overview of the different types of centres, principally at the federal level, as cantons all have their own specificities.
Federal asylum centres
Federal asylum centres are divided into two categories: those with processing facilities and those without. Each of the six asylum regions has one federal centre with processing facilities and at least one without. Persons in need of protection should lodge their asylum application in one of the 6 federal centres with processing facilities. Following the application, the SEM can decide to allocate them to one of the other five centres. In principle, asylum seekers remain in these centres during a few weeks or months, until they are either assigned to a canton or transferred to a federal asylum centre without processing facilities (also called “departure centres”). The maximum length of stay in federal asylum centres – be it with or without processing facilities – is 140 days, whereby this length can be exceeded by a few days. In 2020, the average length of stay in federal asylum centres was 71 days.
In order to be able to respect the measures related to COVID-19, the SEM has reduced the capacity of the federal asylum centres to 60% of the beds they dispose of in 2020. Thus, the capacity of all federal asylum centres by the end of 2020 was 4,794 places. If considering the total number of beds in the centres, the average occupancy rate was 41%.
The running of the centres and security matters are entrusted to private companies. The federal asylum centres can be described as semi-closed, as the hours when asylum seekers may leave and return are limited. For more information, see section on Freedom of Movement.
Federal asylum centres with processing facilities
The centres with processing facilities are the following, one for each of six asylum regions:
- Altstätten (Canton of St. Gallen, Region Eastern Switzerland);
- Basel (Canton of Basel, Region North-Western Switzerland);
- Boudry (Canton of Neuchâtel, French-speaking Region);
- Zurich (Canton of Zurich, Zurich Region);
- Chiasso/Balerna-Novazzano (Canton of Ticino, Region Ticino & Central Switzerland); and
- Berne (Canton of Berne, Bern Region).
Federal asylum centres without processing facilities (“departure centres”)
In addition to the federal asylum centres with processing facilities, where the asylum procedures are conducted, there are other federal asylum centres without processing facilities, also called “departures centres”, where asylum applicants are usually transferred when they are subject to a Dublin or a negative decision. This can occur either before the final decision (when the main investigative measures requiring the presence of the applicant have been conducted), or after the expiry of the time limit to appeal. These centres mainly house people who have to leave Switzerland within a short period of time and therefore are not transferred to the cantonal asylum centres, unless they cannot be removed from Switzerland within the set period of 140 days.
Each asylum region has at least one departure centre. Currently the centres without processing facilities operating are located in Kreuzlingen, Sulgen, Embrach, Glaubenberg, Giffers, Vallorbe, Kappelen, Boltigen, Flumenthal, Allschwil, Reinach and Brugg. Some of those – and a few more – have been temporarily opened in order to cope with the pandemic, since the capacity of the centres must be reduced to respect the distancing rule.
Most of these centres are situated in remote and isolated locations, which is highly problematic both because those residing there are practically denied contact with the outside world, leading to social exclusion, and because they are prevented from finding a legal representative to appeal a negative decision. The restriction of movement due to isolation is further exacerbated by the precarious financial situation of most asylum seekers who cannot afford public transportation.
Furthermore, part of these centres are located in former military shelters. This is the case of the centre of Glaubenberg, for example. Federal military buildings and installations may be used without cantonal or communal authorisation to accommodate asylum seekers for a maximum of three years provided the change in use does not require substantial structural measures and there is no significant change in the occupancy of the installation or building. The National Commission for the Prevention of Torture (NCPT) considers that these military installations are only suitable for short stays of up to three weeks. Like in the federal asylum centres with processing facilities, the regime is semi-closed.
Special centres for uncooperative asylum seekers
Special centres for uncooperative asylum seekers are foreseen by the Asylum Act under Article 24a and Article 15 OA1. The first special centre opened its doors in December 2018 in Les Verrières, Canton of Neuchâtel but was temporarily closed on 1 September 2019 after nine months with in average two inhabitants. During 2020, the centre was not in function, however the SEM has decided to reopen it in February 2021 due to the presence of applicants allegedly disturbing the functioning of the centres or endangering their security. It was originally planned to open a second special centre in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, but plans were put on hold because of the low numbers of asylum applications (for more information and a definition of special centres, see section on Reduction or Withdrawal of Reception Conditions).
Reception centres at the cantonal level
After the maximum of 140 days spent in federal asylum centres, asylum applicants and beneficiaries of protection are allocated to a canton and transferred to a cantonal reception facility. Each canton has its own reception system that usually includes several types of housing (collective centre, family apartment, home for unaccompanied children, etc.). Generally, asylum seekers will be placed in accommodation facilities according to the stage of their procedure (i.e. the supposed length of their stay in Switzerland) and on their personal situation (family, unaccompanied children, vulnerable persons, single men, etc.).
Many cantons organise the accommodation structure in 2 phases: the first one in collective shelters, the second in private accommodation. The moment asylum seekers are transferred in individual accommodation depends on the canton of allocation and its accommodation capacity.
As a general comment on the reception issue, it should be noted that cantonal reception structures were reorganised in 2007, after the FDJP decided to reduce financial allocation to the cantons, based on a temporarily lower number of asylum seekers. Rising numbers of arriving asylum seekers in the following years, and within short periods of time in 2014 and 2015, have presented a challenge to the cantons, some of which started to use underground bunkers for accommodating asylum seekers. The numbers have decreased again in the following years, so that the reception capacity was not an issue anymore. During 2020, however, it has represented a major challenge for the cantons as well as for federal authorities in charge of federal asylum centres due to the COVID-19 pandemic, since the capacity had to be significantly reduced in order to allow for the respect of the social distancing to prevent infections.
 See Camilla Alberti, “Privatisation: Les enjeux autour de la délégation de l’asile. Qui profite de qui?”, Vivre Ensembl nr. 167, available at: https://bit.ly/2LEMjs8.
 Federal Supreme Court, Decision 8C_912/2012, 22 November 2013. For a comment on that decision, see Swiss Centre of Expertise in Human Rights, ‘Héberger un requérant d’asile débouté dans des abris de protection civile est conforme au droit’, 12 March 2014, available (in French) at: http://bit.ly/1CsdPrX.
 Legal provisions related to the management of the federal asylum centres are in the Asylum Act, the Ordinance of the FDJP on the management of federal reception centres in the field of asylum and internal house rules of the registration centres. Further information is available on the website of the SEM, at: http://bit.ly/1dfDc9V.
 Article 24 (4) AsylA.
 Data provided by the SEM, 19 March 2021.
 Information provided by the SEM, 27 April 2021.
 The SEM delegates the task of managing the operation of reception and processing centres to third parties under Article 24b (1) AsylA. Thus, the ORS Service AG (asylum regions Western Switzerland, French speaking Switzerland and Berne) and AOZ Asyl Organisation Zürich (asylum regions Eastern Switzerland, Ticino and Central Switzerland, Zurich) are responsible for running the centres. Security services at the lodges are provided by the companies Securitas AG (asylum regions French speaking Switzerland, Eastern Switzerland, Zurich, Ticino and Central Switzerland) and Protectas SA (asylum regions Western Switzerland and Zurich). Finally, the mandates of patrols operating in the vicinity of the centres have been awarded to three companies: Securitas AG (asylum regions French speaking Switzerland, Zurich) Protectas SA (asylum regions Western Switzerland and Berne) and Verkehrsüberwachung Schweiz (asylum regions Eastern Switzerland and Ticino and Central Switzerland).
 Those are actually two centres, both temporary, and located separately from the SEM and legal protection offices.
 Coalition des juristes indépendant-e-s pour le droit d’asile, ibid., p. 11, ch. 4.2.5.
 Article 24c AsylA.
 NCPT, Report 2014, 8, para 26.
 Conseil Federal, Asile: Fermeture temporaire du centre spécifique de la Confédération des Verrières, available (in French) at: https://bit.ly/2uu87OK. According to the NCPT report on federal asylum centres published on January 2021, between April and September 2019, only ten asylum applicants have been assigned to this centre, p. 19.
 SEM, Communication of 2.02.2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3rzOwV8.