Switzerland: Amnesty International sounds the alarm and urges action to put an end to human rights violations in federal asylum centres
Amnesty International has conducted in-depth research into violence against people seeking asylum and housed in Swiss federal asylum centres. The investigation reveals severe ill-treatment by security staff. In light of this Amnesty International is sounding the alarm about human rights violations against people seeking asylum – including unaccompanied minors and the urgent need for the Swiss government to take action to stop the abuse.
The briefing titled “‘I ask that they treat asylum seekers like human beings’. Human Rights Violations in Swiss Federal Asylum Centres”, documents incidents of ill-treatment by employees of the private security companies Securitas AG and Protectas AG, who are contracted by the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM). The abuses detailed in the briefing occurred between January 2020 and April 2021 in the centres of Basel, Giffers, Boudry, Altstätten and Vallorbe. The information in the briefing is based on interviews with 32 people, including fourteen victims of abuse, eighteen current and former security guards, lawyers, social workers and social educators who had witnessed abuse, as well as medical reports, criminal complaints and other relevant information and documents.
Amnesty International interviewed fourteen people seeking asylum, including two children who reported being subjected to abuse at the hands of security guards. This included beatings, sustained force used that restricted their breathing to an extent that led them to suffering an epileptic seizure or loss of consciousness, and difficulties of breathing through the use of pepper gel, being locked in a metal container resulting in hypothermia and other abuses. Six of the people harmed this way required hospital treatment for their injuries and two were denied medical treatment even though they requested assistance. The cases and information collected for this briefing point to abuses that could constitute torture or other ill-treatment and violate Switzerland’s obligations under international law.
The accounts of ill-treatment we heard from victims – including children, as well as current and ex-security guards, and other professionals working in the centres are deeply concerning. In addition to the complaints of physical harm, ill-treatment and punishment, they also expressed their worry that particular hostility, prejudice and racism is directed towards people, especially those of North African descent.Alicia Giraudel, legal advisor at Amnesty International Switzerland
“The situation we detail in the briefing sounds the alarm. Whilst we welcome the recent commitment by the State Secretariat for Migration to conduct an external investigation into individual allegations of abuse, what we have found indicates that the government must go beyond thinking these acts of abuse are just the actions of a few ‘bad apples’ and instead act to address urgent systemic issues and take measures to prevent ill-treatment, eradicate racist abuse and protect the human rights of people in federal asylum centres.”
Amnesty International’s research provides a concerning picture of ill-treatment in federal asylum centres, and indicates the existence of systemic failures by the authorities, which require further and wider action, as the situation currently leaves people housed in the centres vulnerable to abuse and harm.
The majority of the security guards interviewed by Amnesty International criticised the training provided to guards. They shared their shock at the instructions from superiors to quickly resort to violence and coercive measures, in particular concerns were expressd about the use of the “reflection room”. They shared their dismay that aggressive, provocative and disrespectful behaviour of certain fellow security guards towards the people in the federal asylum centres was tolerated or even encouraged by their superiors. Some people working in the federal asylum centres expressed a concern that the system seems to be based on the assumption that people housed in federal asylum centres are potentially violent and dangerous, and this approach may reinforce pre-existing negative stereotypes and prejudices about them.
Amnesty International is particularly alarmed by the lack of safeguards including robust and proactive monitoring and protection mechanisms by the SEM in federal asylum centres. In the briefing, Amnesty International expresses concern at the way the “reflection room” is being used by guards that violates the rights of people at the centre, and also breaches the centre’s own rules that govern the use of the room. The organisation is also concerned at the use of a metal container outside one centre as an improvised holding cell and as a location and method of punishment. Almost all of the security guards, lawyers and social care workers interviewed by the human rights organisation expressed concerns about the practice of some guards to write reports which are not accurate to the incidents of violence when they occur.
Amnesty International is also very concerned at the cases it has documented of ill-treatment of children, particularly unaccompanied minors. Additionally of concern is that some minors are housed in the centres with adults.
Amnesty International found that the victims interviewed did not know where to turn to lodge a complaint, and that access to justice for victims of ill-treatment was fraught with obstacles. Moreover, no person who works or has worked in the centres was aware of any whistleblowing mechanisms. Some professionals, security staff and legal representatives working at the centres expressed their doubts about the transparency, impartiality, efficiency and thoroughness of the SEM’s investigations into incidents of violence.
The Swiss authorities must take measures to enhance its preventative safeguards and ensure robust and proactive monitoring systems are in place which are specifically aimed at ensuring all people in asylum centres are protected ill-treatment and racist abuse. Further, we urge that all allegations of human rights violations are investigated promptly, thoroughly and impartially and that those responsible for such abuses are brought to justice, and their victims receive reparations.Alicia Giraudel
Amnesty International calls for independent, safe and effective complaints mechanisms, including whistle-blower systems, that are available and accessible for persons housed in centre and staff and that everyone is aware of how to use them. In addition, the organisation calls on the authorities to take action to address negative and harmful stereotypes and racist views about people seeking asylum, especially people from North Africa, and to stop placing unaccompanied minors in federal asylum centres.
After the SEM started operating the federal asylum centres in March 2019 following the entry into force of the Asylum Act, it outsourced security tasks at the centres to private companies, namely Protectas AG and Securitas AG.
Concerns about abuses and ill-treatment of detainees were first brought to Amnesty International’s attention by social workers and security guards, and subsequently by people seeking asylum who are or were housed in the centres themselves, as well as legal representatives who work or have worked in the Federal Asylum Centres.
For further information and interview requests, please contact Amnesty Switzerland’s media office +41 (0)79 379 80 37 or [email protected].