UN condemns Swiss vote to detain failed asylum-seekers

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Switzerland has voted to impose tough new laws authorising the detention of failed asylum-seekers and cuts to would-be immigrants' welfare benefits in a national referendum widely criticised by the United Nations and human rights organisations.

The measures, which were approved by a sizeable majority, were part of a government drive to reduce the abuse of the country's laws. Christoph Blocher, the Justice Minister, said before yesterday's vote that "the paradise of Switzerland" did not have room for everybody.

However, the new laws, which will also oblige asylum-seekers to provide proof of identity within 48 hours of their arrival in Switzerland, have been sharply criticised by the United Nations refugee agency, which says that it is common for genuine refugees not to have any means of identification.

The measures will introduce a two-year detention period for failed asylum-seekers, including minors, awaiting deportation. The UN has complained that the provisions could also violate the UN convention of children's rights.

William Spindler, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said he regretted the outcome of the referendum. "It will now be necessary to ensure that the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees remain protected and that the new laws meet international standards," he said.

His view was echoed by the Swiss Refugee Council, which described the measures as far too strict given the fact that the number of people applying for asylum in Switzerland had fallen to its lowest level in 20 years.

"Real refugees will be hindered access to the procedure and may even be rejected and deported," said Jurg Schertenlieb, a council spokesman. He said his organisation would be demanding a revision of key aspects of the legislation.

The country's Protestant Church Association also criticised the new laws, saying they were not appropriate for dealing with the problem and that they contradicted the country's "humanitarian tradition".

Switzerland's draconian treatment of refugees received widespread media attention two years ago after authorities in Berne began housing rejected asylum-seekers in an underground army bunker in the Alps.

The move followed an earlier decision by the Swiss federal government to stop paying welfare benefits to rejected asylum-seekers, leaving the cantons to provide assistance for them.

Restrictions imposed on the more than 100 rejected asylum-seekers in the bunker included a rule that all inmates had to observe an 8pm curfew.