Law Library Stacks

Back to Refugee Law and Policy

Summary

Swiss asylum legislation is based on the principles contained in the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.  The most important norms for admission and handling of refugees are contained in the Asylum Act and the Foreign Nationals Act.  People who are recognized as refugees or are awarded temporary protection are granted a temporary residence permit.  An asylum application can be submitted at the airport, at the border, or inside Switzerland at a reception and processing center.  The applicant’s personal details are recorded, his or her fingerprints and photographs are taken, and the data are compared with national and European databases.  The State Secretariat for Migration conducts an interview to decide whether to approve or deny the asylum application.  If asylum is granted, the refugee can claim social security benefits as if he or she were a Swiss national.  After ten years of permanent residence and if additional conditions are met, a foreigner may apply for citizenship in Switzerland.  For recognized refugees half of the years spent in Switzerland on a temporary residence permit may count towards that total time.

I. General Background

Swiss asylum legislation is based on the principles contained in the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.[1]  Asylum is therefore awarded in accordance with criteria recognized under international law to applicants who are threatened or persecuted.  Furthermore, Switzerland supports international campaigns to help people in regions affected by war and disaster, or grants temporary visas.  The Swiss Federal Council (Bundesrat)[2] also supports efforts to eliminate causes for flight and involuntary migration.[3]

Between January and November 2015, 34,653 asylum applications were submitted in Switzerland, 21.8% of which were approved.[4]  In November 2015, 5,691 asylum applications were registered in Switzerland.[5]  This is an increase of 941 applications in comparison to the previous month.  Most applicants in November came from Afghanistan (2,386), Syria (991), and Iraq (586),[6] and 21.8% of these applications were granted.[7]

Back to Top

II. General Rules and Norms for Admitting Refugees and Handling Refugee Claims

The most important norms for admission and handling of refugees are contained in the Asylum Act[8] and the Foreign Nationals Act.[9]

A.  Asylum Act

The Asylum Act regulates the granting of asylum, the legal status of refugees in Switzerland, and the temporary protection of persons in need of protection in Switzerland and their return.[10]  The State Secretariat for Migration (Staatssekretariat für Migration, SEM) is charged with denying or refusing an asylum application as well as deciding whether to remove an applicant from Switzerland.[11]

Refugees are defined as persons who “in their native country or in their country of last residence are subject to serious disadvantages or have a well-founded fear of being exposed to such disadvantages for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or due to their political opinions.”[12]  Serious disadvantages include a “threat to life, physical integrity or freedom as well as measures that exert intolerable psychological pressure.”[13]

People who have refused to perform military service or have deserted from the military have no right to refugee protection.[14]

Temporary protection is awarded to an applicant if he or she is in serious general danger, in particular during a war or civil war, as well as in situations of general violence.[15]

B. Foreign Nationals Act

The Foreign Nationals Act regulates the entry and exit, residence, and family reunification of foreign nationals in Switzerland, as well as measures to further integration.[16]  Residence and work permits are granted by the Swiss cantons.[17]

Back to Top

III. Processes for Handling Refugees Arriving at the Border

The asylum procedure starts with the submission of an application.[18]  It can be filed at a border control point at a Swiss airport, upon entry at an open border crossing, or at a reception and processing center inside Switzerland.[19]  Since September 2012, it has no longer been possible to submit an asylum application from abroad.[20]

If the application for asylum is made at the border or within Switzerland, the asylum seeker is assigned to a reception and processing center.[21]  At the reception and processing center the applicant’s personal details are recorded and fingerprints and photographs taken, and summary questioning is performed.[22]

If the application is made at an airport, personal details are recorded at the airport and fingerprints and photographs taken.  Other biometric data may be collected, and summary questioning is performed.[23]  The authorities must decide within two days whether the applicant will be allowed to enter Switzerland.[24]  The asylum procedure may take place at the airport or in a cantonal processing center.[25]

Back to Top

IV. Adjustments/Amendments to the Procedure for Handling Refugees as a Result of the Current Refugee Crisis

A.  Controlling Mass Immigration Initiative

On February 9, 2014, the Swiss adopted a popular initiative aimed at controlling immigration by introducing annual quotas as well as by amending the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons between Switzerland and the European Union (EU) with regard to the social security benefits of immigrants seeking employment and the residence permits of immigrants who have lost their jobs.[26]  The initiative introduced a new article 121a into the Swiss Constitution.[27]  Article 121a of the Swiss Constitution tasks the Federal Council and the Parliament with introducing a new admissions system for foreign nationals within three years and negotiating an amendment to the Agreement on Free Movement of Persons.  On February 11, 2015, the Federal Council released draft legislation to amend the Foreign Nationals Act.[28]  The Federal Council is consulting with the EU on a safeguard clause, but has also instructed the Federal Department of Justice and Police to draft a unilateral safeguard clause to allow the autonomous control of immigration by imposing temporary and targeted restrictions on permits for persons from EU/EFTA states.[29]

Furthermore, the Federal Council is consulting on reducing administrative hurdles for recognized refugees and temporarily admitted persons so that they can find work more easily.[30]

B.  Amendment of the Asylum Act

Another amendment currently under discussion would restructure the asylum system.  The Federal Council has drafted legislation that was approved by the Parliament on September 25, 2015.  The deadline for a referendum on the draft legislation ends on January 14, 2016.[31]

The draft legislation would amend the Asylum Act to accelerate the asylum process.  A majority of asylum applications would be processed in federal centers instead of centers run by the cantons.  In addition, asylum seekers would receive free legal advice and representation for the asylum procedure.[32]  The legislation aims at processing the majority of asylum applications within 140 days.[33]

Back to Top

V. Steps Taken to Determine Whether a Person is Entitled to Refugee Status

After the asylum seeker is allowed entry into Switzerland and has submitted an application at the airport or a reception and processing center, there is an initial screening and questioning.  In the next step, the applicant is allocated to a canton by the SEM[34] according to a quota system codified in article 21 of Asylum Order 1.[35]

Interviews to establish whether a person is entitled to refugee status are conducted either in the reception and processing centers or in the canton within twenty days after the decision on allocation.[36]  The SEM takes the results from the initial questioning into account.  The agency has the obligation to investigate the facts,[37] but the burden of proof is on the applicant.[38]

If the asylum application is approved, the applicant receives a temporary residence permit.[39]  After ten years, a permanent residence permit may be issued.[40]

Back to Top

VI. Screening Procedure for Arriving Refugees Being Resettled in the Country

The Swiss Confederation has set up reception and processing centers that are run by the SEM.[41]  The reception and processing centers record the applicant’s personal details and take fingerprints and photographs.  They may collect additional biometric data, prepare reports on a person’s age,[42] verify evidence and travel and identity documents, and make inquiries specific to origin and identity.  Furthermore, the centers ask general questions about the applicant’s identity and itinerary, and his or her reasons for leaving the country of origin.[43]  The applicant has a duty to cooperate and must hand over necessary documents and identification papers.[44]

The Swiss authorities are allowed to search the applicant[45] and to confiscate travel documents and identity papers.[46]

Fingerprints are compared with the fingerprint database managed by the Federal Office of Police.[47]  They are also entered into the European Eurodac database.[48]

Back to Top

VII. Accommodations and Assistance Provided to Refugees

Recognized refugees, asylum seekers, provisionally admitted persons who have been in Switzerland for less than seven years, and those in need of protection can claim public social assistance.  The cantonal authorities are responsible for providing that support.[49]  The amount of benefits provided differs according to cantonal law.[50]  The costs are reimbursed by the federal government.[51]

Public assistance paid to asylum seekers and provisionally admitted persons without a residence permit is less than that paid to Swiss nationals[52]—generally, 20% less than what a Swiss national receives.  Asylum seekers are generally awarded around 1,200 Swiss francs (CHF) (approximately US$1,215) per person each month for accommodations, food, toiletries and household articles, clothing, pocket money, and health insurance and health care costs.[53]  Recognized refugees are provided with the same amount of public assistance as a Swiss national.[54]  Most cantons have delegated the task of providing social security services to relief organizations. In the remaining cantons, the task is fulfilled by the general municipal social service agencies or by special cantonal welfare services for refugees.[55]

Once an asylum seeker is recognized as a refugee, he or she can also claim a child allowance.[56]

Back to Top

VIII. Steps Resettlement Applicants Must Undergo Before Arrival

On March 6, 2015, the Swiss Federal Council decided to accept over the course of three years three thousand people from Syria who have been designated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as vulnerable refugees.  Two thousand refugees will be part of the resettlement program, and the remaining one thousand refugees will receive a humanitarian visa.[57]  All three thousand will receive refugee status in Switzerland and will not have to go through the usual asylum procedure.  For security reasons, the files of all people in the program will be checked by the Federal Intelligence Service.  Furthermore, Switzerland will try to ensure a fair balance between people with a higher potential for integration (children, skilled workers) and people with special needs (handicapped, sick, the elderly).[58]

Back to Top

IX. Path to Naturalization

In general, foreign nationals may apply for a naturalization license only if they have been permanent residents of Switzerland for a total period of twelve years, including three of the five years prior to the application being made.[59]

An amendment to the Swiss Citizenship Act passed in 2014 shortened the residence period to ten instead of twelve years.[60]  Furthermore, for asylum seekers and recognized refugees, half of the years spent in Switzerland on a temporary residence permit will count towards the total period.[61]  The Federal Council has not yet set a date on which the amendments will enter into force.[62]

Before a naturalization license is granted, the Swiss authorities examine if the applicant

  1. is integrated into Swiss society;
  2. is familiar with Swiss habits, customs and practices;
  3. abides by Swiss law;
  4. and does not pose a risk to Swiss internal or external security.[63]

The specific Swiss canton and commune might have additional requirements.[64]

Back to Top

X.  Monitoring and Movement of Refugees While in the Country

While the asylum application is pending, asylum seekers are obligated to make themselves available to the federal and cantonal authorities and must inform the competent authorities of their address and any change of address immediately.[65]

According to section 28 of the Asylum Act, the SEM or the cantonal authorities may allocate a place of stay to asylum seekers.  Refugees must stay in the canton to which they have been allocated,[66] but may choose to reside anywhere within that canton.[67]  If they wish to relocate to another canton, they must apply for permission from the new canton.[68]

Back to Top

XI.  Roles of Subnational Governments

The Swiss cantons are responsible for providing social assistance to asylum seekers and refugees, although some cantons have delegated this task to relief organizations, general municipal social service agencies, or special cantonal welfare services for refugees.  The costs are reimbursed by the federal government.  In 2009, the cantons received CHF55.90 (approximately US$65.60) per day on average for each refugee requiring support.[69]

Furthermore, the canton to which an asylum seeker has been allocated is responsible for enforcing a removal order from the SEM when an asylum application has been rejected.[70]

Back to Top

Prepared by Jenny Gesley
Foreign Law Specialist
March 2016


[1] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, July 28, 1951, 19 U.S.T. 6259, 189 U.N.T.S. 137, http://www. unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.pdf, archived at http://perma.cc/K3X4-FA37.

[2] The Federal Council (Bundesrat) is the name of the Swiss government.

[3] Basic Principles of Asylum Legislation, State Secretariat for Migration, https://www.sem.admin.ch/ sem/en/home/asyl/asyl/asylrecht.html (last updated Nov. 14, 2011), archived at http://perma.cc/ZG4B-NN6U.

[4] Asylstatistik, Staatssekretariat für Migration [Asylum Statistics, State Secretariat for Migration] 18 (2015), https://www.sem.admin.ch/dam/data/sem/publiservice/statistik/asylstatistik/monat/2015/ stat-mt-201511-d.pdf, archived at http://perma.cc/SS24-UKYW.

[5] Id. at 14.

[6] Id. at 15.

[7] Id. at 14.

[8] Asylgesetz [AsylG] [Asylum Act], June 26, 1998, as amended, Systematische Rechtssammlung [SR] 142.31, https://www.admin.ch/opc/de/classified-compilation/19995092/201510010000/142.31.pdf, archived at http://perma. cc/4EWF-5P6B, unofficial English translation at https://www.admin.ch/opc/en/classified-compilation/19995092/ 201510010000/142.31.pdf, archived at http://perma.cc/QG7D-ZSCM.

[9] Bundesgesetz über die Ausländerinnen und Ausländer [Ausländergesetz] [AuG] [Foreign Nationals Act], Dec. 16, 2005, SR 142.20, https://www.admin.ch/opc/de/classified-compilation/20020232/201510010000/142.20.pdf, archived at http://perma.cc/6G74-UYXM, unofficial English translation at https://www.admin.ch/opc/en/classified-compilation/20020232/201510010000/142.20.pdf, archived at http://perma.cc/5LEJ-RKJX.

[10] Asylum Act art. 1.

[11] Id. art. 6a, para. 1.

[12] Id. art. 3, para. 1.

[13] Id. art. 3, para. 2.

[14] Id. art. 3, para. 3.

[15] Id. § 4.

[16] Foreign Nationals Act art. 1.

[17] Id. art. 40.

[18] Asylum Act art. 18.

[19] Id. art. 19.

[20] Asylgesetz (AsylG) (Dringliche Änderungen des Asylgesetzes) Änderung vom 28. September 2012 [Asylum Act (Urgent Amendments of the Asylum Act) Amendment of September 28, 2012], Amtliche Sammlung [AS] 2012, 5359, https://www.admin.ch/opc/de/official-compilation/2012/5359.pdf, archived at http://perma.cc/4BFQ-LBLU.

[21] Asylum Act art. 21.

[22] Id. art. 26, para. 2.

[23] Id. art. 22.

[24] Id. art. 22, para. 4.

[25] Id. art. 23.

[26] Volksinitiative „Gegen Masseneinwanderung“, Volksabstimmung vom 9. Februar 2014 [Popular Initiative “Against Mass Immigration,” Popular Vote of February 9, 2014], Eidgenössisches Justiz- und Polizeidepartement [Federal Department of Justice and Police], http://www.ejpd.admin.ch/ejpd/de/ home/aktuell/abstimmungen/2014-02-09.html, archived at http://perma.cc/E8XE-483Q.

[27] Bundesverfassung der Schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft [BV] [Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation], Apr. 18, 1999, SR 101, https://www.admin.ch/opc/de/classified-compilation/19995395/20150614 0000/101.pdf, archived at http://perma.cc/W5Y9-FLDJ, unofficial English translation at https://www.admin.ch/opc/ en/classified-compilation/19995395/201506140000/101.pdf, archived at http://perma.cc/3UYQ-R3QX.

[28] Bundesgesetz über die Ausländerinnen und Ausländer [Ausländergesetz] [AuG] (Steuerung der Zuwanderung) Änderung [Foreign Nationals Act (Control of Immigration) Amendment], https://www.sem.admin.ch/dam/data/ sem/aktuell/gesetzgebung/teilrev_aug_art-121a/vorentw-aug-d.pdf, archived at http://perma.cc/DS95-7PWH.

[29] Implementation of the New Constitutional Provisions on Immigration, State Secretariat for Migration, https://www.sem.admin.ch/sem/en/home/themen/fza_schweiz-eu-efta/umsetzung_vb_zuwanderung.html (last updated Dec. 18, 2015), archived at http://perma.cc/SZA3-E8H4.

[30] Press Release, Federal Council, Controlling Immigration: Federal Council Approves Draft Legislation and Negotiating Mandate (Feb. 11, 2015), https://www.sem.admin.ch/sem/en/home/aktuell/news/2015/ref_2015-02-110.html, archived at http://perma.cc/68RH-6CPC.

[31] Änderung des Asylgesetzes (AsylG) (Neustrukturierung des Asylbereiches) [Amendment of the Asylum Act (Asylum Act) (Restructuring of the Asylum System)], Staatssekretariat für Migration, https://www.sem.admin. ch/sem/de/home/aktuell/gesetzgebung/aend_asylg_neustruktur.html (last updated Sept. 3, 2014), archived at http://perma.cc/B26W-FW8Y.

[33] Id. art. 24, para. 6.

[34] Asylum Act art. 27.

[35] Asylverordnung 1 über Verfahrensfragen [Asylverordnung 1] [AsylV 1] [Asylum Order 1 on Procedural Questions] [Asylum Order 1], Aug. 11, 1999, as amended, SR 142.311, https://www.admin.ch/opc/de/classified-compilation/19994776/201509290000/142.311.pdf, archived at http://perma.cc/9KVQ-ZJ5C.

[36] Asylum Act art. 29, para. 1.

[37] Id. art. 6; Verwaltungsverfahrensgesetz [VwVG] [Administrative Procedure Act], Dec. 20, 1968, SR 172.021, art. 12, https://www.admin.ch/opc/de/classified-compilation/19680294/201501010000/172.021.pdf, archived at http://perma.cc/2CMC-N47N, unofficial English translation at https://www.admin.ch/opc/en/classified-compilation/ 19680294/201501010000/172.021.pdf, archived at http://perma.cc/3U2X-9J4X.

[38] Asylum Act art. 7.

[39] Id. art. 74, para. 2.

[40] Id. art. 74, para. 3.

[41] Id. art. 26, para. 1.

[42] Id. art. 17, para. 3bis.

[43] Id. art. 26, para. 2.

[44] Id. art. 8.

[45] Id. art. 9.

[46] Id. art. 10.

[47] Id. art. 99, para. 3.

[48] Id. art. 102a bis.

[49] Id. art. 80.

[50] Id. art. 82, para. 1.

[51] Id. art. 88.

[52] Id. art. 82, para. 3.

[53] Social Assistance for Asylum Seekers, Provisionally Admitted Persons and Those in Need of Protection, State Secretariat for Migration, https://www.sem.admin.ch/sem/en/home/asyl/sozialhilfe/asylsuchende__ vorlaeufig.html (last updated Oct. 19, 2015), archived at http://perma.cc/4J2T-97PT.

[54] Social Assistance, State Secretariat for Migration, https://www.sem.admin.ch/sem/en/home/asyl/sozial hilfe.html (last updated Aug. 11, 2015), archived at http://perma.cc/9UNS-NF9J.

[55] Social Assistance for Persons with Refugee Status, State Secretariat for Migration, https://www.sem.admin. ch/sem/en/home/asyl/sozialhilfe/anerkannte_fluechtlinge.html (last updated Oct. 19, 2015), archived at http://perma. cc/WHN7-8NRE.

[56] Asylum Act art. 84.

[57] Press Release, Der Bundesrat [Federal Council], Bundesrat beschliesst zusätzliche Massnahmen für die Opfer des Syrienkonflikts [Federal Council Agrees on Additional Measures for the Victims of the Syrian Conflict] (Mar. 6, 2015), https://www.admin.ch/gov/de/start/dokumentation/medienmitteilungen.msg-id-56476.html, archived at http://perma.cc/E2S3-RJ9G.

[58] Faktenblatt: Aktuelle Lage, Resettlement und Relocation [Fact Sheet: Current Situation, Resettlement and Relocation], Eidgenössisches Justiz- und Polizeidepartement, Staatssekretariat für Migration 3 (Sept. 18, 2015), https://www.eda.admin.ch/content/dam/mission-eu-brussels/de/documents/ EJPD_Faktenblatt_Aktuelle%20Lage%20Asyl%20Resettlment%20und%20Relocation%20DE.pdf, archived at http://perma.cc/9ZNW-PY3L.

[59] Bürgerrechtsgesetz [BüG] [Swiss Citizenship Act], Sept. 29, 1952, SR 141.0, art. 15, para. 1, https://www.admin. ch/opc/de/classified-compilation/19520208/201301010000/141.0.pdf, archived at http://perma.cc/8FHC-N79G, unofficial English translation at https://www.admin.ch/opc/en/classified-compilation/19520208/201301010000/ 141.0.pdf, archived at http://perma.cc/8349-5MV8 (both texts current only up to Jan. 1,  2013).

[60] Bürgerrechtsgesetz, [BüG] [Swiss Citizenship Act] June 20, 2014, Bundesblatt [BBl.] [Federal Gazette] 5133 (2014), https://www.admin.ch/opc/de/federal-gazette/2014/5133.pdf, archived at http://perma.cc/ZW97-WAL9.

[61] Id. art. 33, para. 1, letter b.

[62] Id. art. 52.

[63] Swiss Citizenship Act, Sept. 29, 1952, art. 14.

[64] Id. art. 15a.

[65] Asylum Act art. 8, para. 3.

[66] Id. art. 74, para. 1.

[67] Foreign Nationals Act art. 36.

[68] Id. art. 37, para. 1.

[69] State Secretariat for Migration, supra note 55.

[70] Asylum Act arts. 44, 46.