Conditions in federal reception centres
In the federal asylum centres, asylum seekers are usually housed in single-sex dorms, while families are accommodated together. Places to rest or get isolated are mostly inexistent. Rooms contain at a minimum two or three beds (usually reserved for couples and families) and up to several dozens of beds each, equipped with bunk beds. Asylum seekers are responsible for cleaning their rooms. In its report published in 2021, the NCPT considered the level of cleaning satisfactory. Asylum seekers share common showers and toilet facilities, which are poorly equipped in terms of privacy. In some cases, men and women share the same showers that they access during different times. The same happens with male and female unaccompanied minors, for whom the NCPT recommends providing specific time slots for the use of showers.
The law stipulates that the special needs of children, families and other vulnerable persons are taken into account as far as possible in the allocation of beds, but this provision is very general. In 2020, the schooling has been organized in all federal asylum centres, while few leisure activities exist for children, especially under and above school age. The general tension that exists within the centres, due to the high psychological pressure asylum seekers are living under, the coexistence of persons with very different backgrounds, or even alcohol or drug issues that may occur in the centres, can make the situation very difficult for children, single women or other vulnerable persons.
Asylum seekers are subject to body-search by security personnel every time they come back after going out of the centres. This has concerned even children until 2019, however since 2020 children are body-searched only upon suspicion. According to the National Commission for the Prevention of Torture (NCPT), also adults should be body-searched only in case of suspicion. Security personnel is also authorised to seize goods when asylum seekers enter or go out of the centre.
In its latest report published in January 2021, the NCPT draws its conclusions on the visits carried out between 2019 and 2020 in 8 federal asylum centres. On a positive note, it highlights the introduction of schooling for children in the centres. The Commission observed shortcomings in several areas. The identification of vulnerable persons (victims of trafficking, victims of torture, etc.) is still insufficient and so is the level of care offered to them. There is a need to reinforce the first medical consultations and to provide a psychological assessment upon arrival at the federal asylum centre. According to the Commission, there is also potential for improvement in the area of conflict management and the prevention of violence. The NCPT recommends improving the training of security personnel and providing for the establishment of a complaint management system. It also recommends avoiding systematic searches of asylum seekers at the entrance of the centres, clarifying the use of the “reflection room” and formalising the decisions on disciplinary sanctions, which should always take place in writing.
Asylum seekers are required to participate in domestic work on request of the staff. Household tasks are shared between all asylum seekers according to a work breakdown schedule. The permission to leave the centre is denied until the given tasks have been accomplished. Generally, maintenance is provided by third parties, namely for cleaning tasks (especially for toilets and showers) and the cooking as well as security tasks. Asylum seekers may voluntarily help to serve meals or help in the kitchen. They are not allowed to cook their own food in the federal centres (with a few exceptions regarding centres without processing facilities), but specific diets are mostly respected.
There is a chaplaincy service in every federal centre. Protestant and catholic chaplains spiritually accompany asylum seekers. They often play an important social role, as they provide an open ear to asylum seekers’ worries, and they sometimes call attention to problems in the centres. Between July 2016 and December 2018, a pilot project with Muslim chaplains was set up in the test centre in Zurich. Despite a very positive evaluation of the project, which highlighted the relevance of offering spiritual support to asylum seekers of Muslim faith, the project ended in Zurich and was not extended to other centres of the Confederation.
Occupational programmes are proposed to asylum seekers from 16 years of age on, in order to give a structure to the day and thus facilitate cohabitation. The occupational programmes must respond to a local or regional general interest of the town or municipality. They must not compete with the private sector. They include work in protection of nature and the environment or for social and charitable institutions. Examples are cutting trees or hedges, fixing rural pathways, cleaning public spaces. There is no right to participate in occupational programmes. In case of shortage of places in the occupational programmes, places are distributed according to the principle of rotation of the participants. An incentive allowance may be paid to the asylum seeker. This amount is very low and can therefore not be compared to a salary for a regular job. Thus, remuneration is limited to CHF 5 per hour, a maximum of CHF 30 per working day and a maximum of CHF 400 per month. Persons staying in a special centre for uncooperative asylum seekers receive the incentive allowance in the form of non-cash benefits. It was reported that in some centres, remuneration is provided only at the time of transfer to another centre, meaning that asylum seekers cannot access the money earned in practice.
Use of physical force and violence episodes in the federal asylum centres
During 2020, there was a number of cases in which violence escalated in the federal asylum centres. The media reported about excessive use of physical force by security personnel. According to the information received by the NCPT, the security personnel intervened several times with physical coercion (fixation on the ground), pepper gel and the use of the “reflection room” (see above). Repeatedly, bruises and hematomas resulted from the interventions. Several criminal proceedings were initiated against security staff, with allegations of disproportionate or arbitrary violence and abuse of authority. As noted above, the security staff is contracted from private companies.
On 5 May 2021, the SEM announced that it had mandated a former federal judge with an independent investigation on such episodes of violence. Parallel to this, the SEM has suspended 14 security agents working in the federal asylum centres according to the media.
In all federal asylum centres visited by the NCPT the security staff carried pepper spray. According to data available to the Commission, between April 2019 and March 2020 it was used 17 times in Boudry, 6 times in Kreuzlingen, 5 times in Chiasso and one in Kappelen. The NCPT also reported the worrying use of a dog in the outside zone of the centre of Balerna.
In the Commission’s assessment, there is considerable potential for improvement in the handling of conflicts, in the prevention of violence and in allegations of violence, namely through the introduction of a low-threshold and systematic complaint management system. The NCPT has also recommended that security companies recruit experienced and competent personnel and improve their training, reinforce the role of assistance staff and introduce consultation hours for persons with addictions (on the basis of a best practice tested in Kreuzlingen).
The SEM is currently finalising a violence prevention concept to be applied to all federal asylum centres. One positive measure that was already taken is that security agents wear an identification number on their uniform. A complaint management system is also foreseen, but the SEM was initially planning to directly manage such complaint system. Several NGOs such as the Swiss Refugee Council and Amnesty International claimed the need to establish an independent complaint and monitoring system or an ombudsman’s office. As of May 2021, there was still no follow-up on this..
Conditions under the COVID-19 pandemic
In order to prevent COVID-19 infections and respect the hygiene and distancing rules issued by the Federal Office of Public Health, at the beginning of the pandemic the SEM has decided to lower the maximum capacity of the federal asylum centres to 50%. This was possible given the low numbers of new applications and the opening of six new centres operating as federal asylum centres.
Masks were not immediately at disposal but were accessible to asylum seekers within a few weeks since the beginning of the pandemic. An obligation to wear them was also introduced in the federal centres, 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, the distancing rule can hardly be observed in collective centres. Due to the difficulties in enforcing the measures, staff members have been especially burdened and overload. Persons belonging to particularly high-risk groups have been accommodated in separate areas or centres. Infected persons were placed in isolation and in a few cases, entire centres have been quarantined (see section on Freedom of movement). As of January 2021, 230 asylum seekers tested positive to COVID-19 have been registered; none of them has died.
Conditions in cantonal-level facilities
As explained under the section on Types of Accommodation, reception conditions differ largely from on canton to another. Individual housing provides comfortable housing conditions, while most asylum seekers stay in collective centres, at least at first arrival in the canton. Cantonal authorities strive to house families in individual accommodations, even though this is not always possible. Generally speaking, asylum seekers benefit from less restrictive measures in the cantonal centres compared to the federal centres, as they mostly can go out at their convenience, or cook for themselves for instance.
Asylum seekers are however frequently confronted with the remoteness of reception centres, which impedes them to meet with family members, acquaintances or even consult a legal representative if they do not have financial resources.
 NCPT, Report on federal asylum centres 2019-2020, p. 27.
 Article 4(1) Ordinance of the FDJP on the management of federal reception centres in the field of asylum.
 Alcohol and drugs are strictly prohibited within the centres under Article 4(2) Ordinance of the FDJP on the management of federal reception centres in the field of asylum. However, this does not prevent some breaches of the regulation from happening in practice.
 According to Article 4 of the Ordinance of the FDJP, security personal is allowed to seize travel and identity documents, dangerous objects, assets, electronic devices that may disturb the peace, alcohol, drugs and food. Prohibited weapons and drugs are given to the police immediately.
 NCPT, Report on federal asylum centres 2019-2020.
 The centres visited were Boudry, Kappelen, Kreuzlingen, Balerna, Chiasso, Chiasso Via Motta, Geneva airport, Halle 9 in Oerlikon.
 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).
 Article 6a Ordinance of the FDJP.
 See the Communication of the Swiss Refuge Council on this matter, available at: https://bit.ly/2Z0xsvl.
 NCPT, Report on federal asylum centres 2019-2020, p. 22-24. See also newspaper article “Violence à Chevrilles”, Le Courrier, 18.06.2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3pbGQXm.
 NCPT, Report on federal asylum centres 2019-2020, ch. 61 (page 17).
 NCPT, Report on federal asylum centres 2019-2020, p. 31.
 See for example SRF Rundschau, 1.04.2020, “Virus im Heim: Corona-Kampf im Asylwesen”, available at: https://bit.ly/2JSf2c5; Le Courrier, 10.06.2020, “Des requérant-e-s en ‘quarantaine’”, available at: https://bit.ly/35k7lmH.