Switzerland has announced a temporary halt to its participation in a UN program to take in vulnerable refugees. The government says the influx of war refugees from Ukraine has pushed it to the limit.
Switzerland takes in several hundred vulnerable refugees every year – mostly women, children and people in need of medical care – through a program organized by the UN refugee agency UNHCR. But the government has now announced that it is calling a halt to admissions, at least for the time being.
"The program itself is not in doubt, only the intake is temporarily being suspended," the State Secretary for Migration, Lukas Rieder, told the news agency AFP, confirming media reports in Le Temps and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
The reason for the freeze on admissions is that the asylum system in Switzerland, with a population of 8.7 million, is at its limit, according to the government. Since the beginning of 2022, 100,000 people have applied for protection in the country, including over 70,000 refugees from Ukraine.
In particular, shortages in accommodation and staff have put the asylum system under "high pressure," said Rieder.
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Most from Afghanistan, Syria, Sudan
Under the resettlement program, the UNHCR presents a list of eligible refugees to the Swiss federal government, which selects a number who then travel directly to Switzerland. Once in the country, they are not required to go through an asylum procedure. Most of those admitted under the program are from Afghanistan, Syria and Sudan.
Switzerland had pledged to take in a total of 1,820 vulnerable refugees in 2022 and 2023. By mid-December, 641 people had been admitted as part of the program.
According to Rieder, those refugees who have already received a positive decision – around 350 to 400 people -- should still be able to enter Switzerland until the end of March 2023, but any more will have to wait, he added.
The government plans to review the decision in the first half of 2023. But the leader of the Greens, Aline Trede, said it should be reversed as soon as possible. "It is not true that rich Switzlerand has too little space for refugees," the NZZ quoted Trede as saying.
However, Thomas Aeschi, the parliamentary group leader of the right-wing populist SVP party, supports the freeze, and wants the resettlement program to be stopped for good. "We are fundamentally opposed to this flood of refugees," he said.
Switzerland has a long history of humanitarian protection and it deals with more asylum requests than other European countries, relative to the size of its population. But Philippe Müller, the FDP (Free Democrats Party) security director in the canton of Bern, says there is no longer room to admit any more people, even if they are "real refugees".
"That’s the tragedy of this story," Müller told the NZZ. "We have too many fake refugees in the country. They take away space from vulnerable refugees."
UNHCR regrets suspension
The UNHCR expressed regret at the government’s decision to suspend the resettlement program. The agency’s Swiss representative Anja Klug said she understood that the country was currently under pressure.
"But of course we hope that the federal government will resume the program quickly and fulfill the agreed quota by the end of 2023," she said.