Prevent Discrimination in Access to Public Facilities
August 7, 2013

For Switzerland, the home of the United Nations and its refugee agency, to introduce a blatantly discriminatory policy that effectively segregates asylum seekers from the communities in which they live is shocking. The Swiss authorities should encourage all Swiss communities to treat some of the world’s most vulnerable people with respect and dignity, rather than reinforcing prejudice and division.

Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher

The Swiss government is arbitrarily interfering with asylum seekers’ free movement rights by giving local authorities the authority to prohibit them from using public school and sports facilities, Human Rights Watch said. On August 7, 2013, the head of Switzerland’s Migration Ministry, Mario Gattiker, told Swiss media that an agreement between his ministry and the municipality of Bremgarten allows local officials to issue “rules of the game” limiting or prohibiting asylum seekers’ use of such spaces.

Gattiker was quoted as saying that the rules are intended to secure an “ordered” and “conflict-free” relationship between asylum seekers and locals and will help avoid “friction and resentment” if “50 asylum seekers” simultaneously use a football pitch or a swimming pool. European and other international law requires Switzerland to justify any free movement restrictions as a necessary, proportionate, and non-discriminatory measure to secure national security, public order, or public health.

“For Switzerland, the home of the United Nations and its refugee agency, to introduce a blatantly discriminatory policy that effectively segregates asylum seekers from the communities in which they live is shocking,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The Swiss authorities should encourage all Swiss communities to treat some of the world’s most vulnerable people with respect and dignity, rather than reinforcing prejudice and division.”    

On August 5, the first of nine new asylum seeker reception centers in Switzerland opened in the village of Bremgarten, 20 kilometers from the city of Zurich, which has a population of 6,500. The center has a capacity of 150 people and currently shelters 23 asylum seekers, including two children. They are allowed to leave the center every day from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.

Gattiker said that under the rules in Bremgarten, an asylum seeker wishing to use school or local sports facilities on weekdays should ask the private security company running the residential center to ask local community representatives for permission. Local community representatives are entitled to refuse simply on the basis of the person’s asylum seeker status.

In response to questions about whether the new rules breached asylum seekers’ free movement rights, Gattiker said that Switzerland was not breaching any laws because there were no penalties under Swiss law if asylum seekers “didn’t respect the rules of the game.” However, he added that repeated breaches would mean that under asylum centers’ “house rules” – or “Hausordnung” – an asylum seeker might be prohibited from leaving the asylum seeker center altogether or might see “a reduction in pocket money.” “Hausordnung” is a Swiss-German term that refers to rules regulating residential institutions and is often associated with prison inmates and soldiers in barracks.

Swiss lawyers say individuals subjected to “house rules” may challenge them before Switzerland’s Federal Court and that soldiers have challenged such rules in front of the European Court of Human Rights.

Under a new law adopted in June, the authorities are planning to open another eight reception centers. The next reception center is to open on August 19, in the town of Alpnach, 100 kilometers south of Zurich. On August 6, the Mayor of Alpnach told Swiss media that the community would retain the right to prohibit asylum seekers from freely accessing schools, sports facilities, a retirement center, and an entire neighborhood near the asylum seeker center.

On August 6, the Mayor of Menizngen, a village 50 kilometers south of Zurich where an asylum seeker reception center is  to open in 2015, told Swiss television and radio that asylum seekers there would be banned from “sensitive areas” such as near schools because “asylum-seekers could meet our schoolchildren – young girls or young boys.”

Under international law, Switzerland must formally justify any prohibition on free movement as the least restrictive measure necessary to protect national security, public order, or public health. In addition, any such policy may not discriminate between Swiss citizens and foreign nationals.

Swiss authorities have failed to show that restricting asylum seekers’ movements in the way proposed under the agreement with the authorities in Bremgarten is a necessary and proportionate measure to protect national security, public order or public health, Human Rights Watch said. The agreement allows for asylum seekers to be banned from certain areas on an arbitrary basis.

Under the Convention Against the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Switzerland is bound to guarantee everyone’s right, “without distinction as to race, colour, or national or ethnic group,” to equality before the law in relation to a range of rights including the right to freedom of movement. The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which interprets the convention, has underlined that “differential treatment based on … immigration status will constitute discrimination if the criteria for such differentiation … are not applied pursuant to a legitimate aim and are not proportional to the achievement of this aim.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as of the end of 2012, there were just over 50,000 recognized refugees, as well as almost 22,000 registered asylum seekers in Switzerland. The Swiss authorities should ensure that all agreements governing asylum centers should guarantee asylum seekers’ free movement rights, Human Rights Watch said.

“After mishandling the opening of the first new asylum seeker reception center, the authorities still have a chance to redeem themselves,” Simpson said. “Instead of encouraging local communities to treat asylum seekers like unwelcome threats to public safety and hygiene, politicians should do everything they can to protect them and encourage their integration into communities.”