Sensitive data exchange: Switzerland reports Eritrean refugees to their country of origin

Source: Watson

[Note: computer translation from the original]

Switzerland reveals data from rejected asylum seekers to the regime in Eritrea. In the National Council, answers are now required from the Federal Council.

9/19/20, 10:09 9/19/20, 2:37 pm
Petar Marjanović
Petar Marjanović

Eritrean refugees have experienced one tightening of asylum after another in the past few years.

In fact, those people fleeing the dictatorship and national service have little chance of protection in Switzerland today: first, illegal departure was denied as a reason to flee, then it was claimed that deserting from national service posed no danger to returnees the Federal Administrative Court ruled that there was no situation of general violence in Eritrea and that a return there would not be generally unreasonable .

This had precarious consequences for the people affected: They are not even “temporarily admitted” – instead, they are increasingly receiving negative decisions on their asylum applications. But because Eritrea still does not accept forced deportations, these people stay here anyway. Paperless and with a minimal need for emergency aid.

The federal government reports rejected refugees to the Eritrean authorities

Research by watson now shows a further tightening. The Switzerland since 2019 informed the Eritrean authorities if a rejected asylum seeker does not want to voluntarily leave Switzerland.

This data exchange was touted by the Federal Council last May as “improved cooperation in the area of ​​identifying individual cases”. Behind it, however, is a new practice that is being criticized by politicians, those affected, lawyers and activists.

The SEM takes the position that expelled persons have to organize their departure themselves by the given deadline. In the case of Eritrea, a voluntary return is reasonable if it is legally established that an asylum seeker no longer needs the “protection of Switzerland”. “However, if the person who is now required to leave the country remains inactive in obtaining travel documents and preparing to leave the country, the SEM will clarify the origin and identity of this person.”

The door of the Embassy and Mission of Eritrea to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva is pictured, in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, August 12, 2015. (KEYSTONE / Salvatore Di Nolfi)

The Swiss authorities exchange personal data with the Eritrean authorities. pictured: keystone

Principle: The Home country must not know anything about the asylum application – does that still apply?

Such identification checks are not unusual in the asylum sector. However, the principle applies that the home authorities of a refugee may not find out about the asylum application, even if the Swiss authorities have rejected it. This principle has been anchored in law since 2007. The asylum law prohibits since then the exchange of personal data of asylum seekers, if as a result the person or members would be harmed.

It is doubtful whether this principle will be adhered to – i.e. whether the SEM is violating the law by forwarding the data to the Eritrean authorities. The exchange of personal data can in principle take place in such a way that officials in Eritrea do not find out about an asylum application. A person involved, who does not want to be named, explains:

«We only report to them that we have an Eritrean here who has to leave the country. The authority then confirms whether this person is really an Eritrean citizen or not. “

Even if the Swiss authorities formulate their identification requests carefully and in accordance with the law: The Eritrean authorities will most likely be able to assume that it is a compatriot who has applied for asylum in Switzerland. This conclusion allows the statistics on “return assistance”: At the end of August, one of 430 ongoing identification requests to Eritrea concerned a case outside the asylum area.

There is no legal answer whether this practice violates the Asylum Act. The renowned migration lawyer and asylum law expert Alberto Achermann describes this as a “question of interpretation”. “It has not been legally clarified from what statistical probability an identification request reveals something about a possible asylum application,” says Achermann. The only thing that is undisputed is that this should not endanger a person or their relatives.

Federal data protection agency defines clear guidelines for data exchange

The Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner (EDÖB for short) is more critical. His spokesman Hugo Wyler does not comment on whether figures reveal anything about a possible asylum application. He notes, however, that the Swiss authorities are only allowed to contact their home country or country of origin if “eviction actually takes place / can take place”.

“If you don’t do that for compulsory eviction and also not for voluntary returnees: then what for?”

Asylum law expert Alberto Achermann

In the case of Eritrea, the conclusion is obvious: if a rejected Eritrean refugee does not want to leave Switzerland voluntarily and cannot be brought to Eritrea due to the lack of a return agreement, then data exchange is not allowed. Asylum law expert Achermann asks himself what the purpose of such identification requests is: “If you don’t do it for compulsory eviction and also not for voluntary returnees: what then?”

The SEM justifies this with the statutory mandate, according to which the federal government must provide the cantons with implementation support. “The fact that a person does not want to return voluntarily or that the cooperation in his country of origin is inadequate does not change anything,” SEM spokesman Reto Kormann continues.

Diplomacy and millions did not get Eritrean politics any further

It is possible that Switzerland will want to keep the communication channel to Eritrea open through such cooperation in order to somehow, at some point, be able to negotiate a readmission agreement. The efforts made so far have not been politically successful. An internal SDC report that watson received on the basis of the Public Information Act states that Eritrea’s government does not want any returnees from abroad. “On the one hand because of the lack of remission payments, on the other hand because of a certain fear of troublemakers.”


The SDC report from 2019 was blackened in important parts. screenshot: watson

The report also notes that so far not a single state has had luck with a readmission agreement. Not even a “confidence-building measure” in the form of EU investments amounting to 200 million euros helped . The internal analysis adds laconically: “There was no corresponding consideration in the form of a readmission agreement”.

Eritrea can collect diaspora tax thanks to information from the federal government

The delicate exchange of data is therefore not well received by the Swiss Refugee Aid. She describes the SEM’s approach as “very questionable”. Eritrea is still a “repressive dictatorship and human rights violations are the order of the day”. If the Eritrean authorities learn that there may be citizens critical of the regime in Switzerland, then family members in Eritrea could be put under pressure.

epa04190193 Eritrean refugees sleep on the sidewalk of a street as they wait for help from UNHCR in Sana'a, Yemen, 03 May 2014. Reports state over 210 Eritrean refugees, including women and children, called on the UN Refugee Agency to provide them with protection and assistance, especially most of them allegedly having fled from Eritrea to Yemen to avoid forced military service. EPA / YAHYA ARHAB

Eritreans on the run: here in Yemen in 2014. image: epa / epa

Eliane Engeler, spokeswoman for refugee aid, also mentions the so-called “diaspora tax”. Eritrea levies a 2 percent tax on its citizens abroad, with which the country is to be built up. In 2013, the Federal Council was unable to confirm rumors that this tax would also be collected by force or with attempted pressure. However, he found that Eritrean embassies sometimes insist on paying the diaspora tax before offering a compatriot any consular service.

Such a consular service would be, for example, official papers, birth certificates or even passports. If it turns out that a rejected asylum seeker has deserted from the Eritrean national service, a higher payment or a “letter of remorse” will be required. There is no guarantee that you can feel safe after voluntary return. That is why many Eritreans stay in Switzerland or hide elsewhere in order to be outside the radar of the regime-loyal embassy.

SP National Councilor wants to request answers from the Federal Council

Samira Marti, candidate as the new JUSO President, before the JUSO delegates' meeting in Zurich on Saturday, June 18, 2016. On June 18, Fabian Molina will step down as JUSO President. Samira Marti and Tamara Funiciello have applied to be the new JUSO President. (KEYSTONE / Walter Bieri)

The SP politician Samira Marti represents the canton of Baselland in the National Council. pictured: keystone

The delicate exchange of data is also causing criticism in the Federal Palace. SP National Councilor Samira Marti says: “If it is true that the SEM lets the Eritrean authorities know which people have been refused asylum in this country, then that is a real scandal.” The Basel bidder sits on the National Council’s State Political Commission, which deals with the Federal Council’s migration policy. Marti announced that she would address this exchange of data in the commission and demand answers from the Federal Council on the legality of this “questionable partnership between Switzerland and Eritrea”.

In her statement, the social democrat emphasizes the precarious asylum situation of the people from Eritrea. «Since the tightening of the case law, many Eritreans have been living in unworthy conditions. If Switzerland now reports rejected asylum seekers to the Eritrean regime, then it is a new summit in the tragic asylum policy. “

Switzerland was sharply criticized for this in May 2020 by a special rapporteur for the UN Human Rights Council. The report expressed concern about the 56 people who have voluntarily returned to Eritrea: “These people could be at risk because their return conditions cannot be adequately monitored.”

Former Federal Councilor Didier Burkhalter, the predecessor of today’s Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis, does not want to comment on the current development between Switzerland and Eritrea. Burkhalter stresses, however, that his principle on human rights issues has not changed. “Only a clear improvement in very specific areas of human rights” would make it possible to start a “real dialogue with this country”. In a statement to watson, he mentions the possibility for “neutral and credible organizations” such as the International Red Cross to visit prisons in Eritrea.

This is still not the case today.

One comment

  1. 🛑! Merci de ne pas faire ça! Absolument dangereux! C’est comme une viande donne aux hyènes! S’il vous plaît ne fais pas pour ces pauvres gens!

    J’ai été dans l’armée de mon âge d’ 17 jusqu’à 23 sans mon Choix, c’était la pire moment pour moi; dans mon tere je me sens comme si colonisé! travail forcé ,esclavage *beaucoup de soufre violence!

    je quitte mon pays mes famille sans mon choix!
    J eu la chance je passé le Sahara désert et le Méditerranée Et grâce à vous ´´´ suisse 🇨🇭 suis entrain de construire ma vie !vrai vie.

    donc vous pensez d’abord à l’endroit où vous envoyez les pauvres gens!

    je suis triste de vous décision!

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