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UN refugee agency concerned at proposed changes to Swiss asylum laws

UN refugee agency concerned at proposed changes to Swiss asylum laws

Asylum seekers at a Swiss reception centre
The United Nations refugee agency expressed concern today over proposed changes to Switzerland’s asylum laws, warning they may breach international conventions at a time when the number of asylum-seekers across Europe has fallen rapidly.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is particularly worried that people who cannot provide valid identity or travel documents promptly will not have access to regular asylum procedures and will not be allowed to claim humanitarian status if the reforms go ahead, spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis said.

Briefing reporters in Geneva, Ms. Pagonis said UNHCR has submitted its comments about the planned changes to Switzerland’s Federal Office for Refugees as part of its role to supervise national and international laws affecting refugees.

She said UNHCR’s submission included several measures designed to improve the efficiency of the asylum system without jeopardizing principle of fairness.

UNHCR is concerned that many refugees who do not have identity or travel documents for valid reasons may be punished under the proposals. In many cases, refugees cannot obtain papers before they flee their homeland or the papers were either confiscated by authorities or never issued in the first place.

Other genuine refugees have their identity or travel documents stolen or destroyed by people-smuggling networks, Ms. Pagonis said.

The agency said it fears the changes could breach both the spirit and the letter of the 1951 UN Convention on the rights and status of refugees.

Earlier this year UNHCR released figures showing an 18 per cent slump in the number of people seeking asylum in Europe between the first quarter of this year and the last three months of 2003, part of a worldwide trend that started two years ago.

Ms. Pagonis said “there appears to be no need for governments to focus so single-mindedly on restrictive revisions of their asylum laws.” To reduce numbers, receiver countries should devote more energy to solving problems in the regions where asylum-seekers have fled, she added.