Switzerland Maintains its Asylum Laws by Mere 3,000 Votes

Nov 26, 2002 12:45 PM EST

Geneva -- Switzerland's churches have sighed with relief after Swiss voters marginally rejected a proposal that would have made the country's asylum laws the "most restrictive" in Europe.

The proposal, which would have preemptively turned back deemed safe asylum-seekers passing into Switzerland from another country, was defeated in a referendum on Sunday by just over 3000 votes from a total of about 2.24 million.

"Despite the close result, our country must continue to be guided by solidarity in thought and deed with human beings who are fleeing situations of crisis," said the council of the Swiss Protestant Church Federation in a statement after the result became known.

The council said that although "the state has the duty to protect itself against abuses of the right to asylum" the existing instruments were "by and large sufficient".

Switzerland's Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference also welcomed the defeat of the proposal, saying in a statement that "common sense has prevailed".

However, the Swiss authorities would have to take account of the fact that almost 50 percent of those voting had supported the proposal, the bishops' conference pointed out.

"Switzerland, which is one of the richest countries of the world, must continue to be one of the most generous. It is a question of conscience," the bishops said.

The proposal, launched by the right-wing populist Swiss People's Party (SVP/UDC), was opposed by all the other main political parties and the country's government and parliament, as well as churches and church agencies.

The office of the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees had said the proposal would make Switzerland's asylum laws "the most restrictive in the whole of Europe".

But the result was one of the closest of any referendum since 1848, with 49.9 per cent (1 119 452 people) voting in favor, and 50.1 per cent (1,122,874 people) voting against - a difference of only 3422 votes.

The Swiss parliament will in any case soon be voting on a revision of the country's asylum laws, said the Geneva-based newspaper Tribune de Geneve, adding: "Yesterday's close result will not encourage the parliament to show an excess of compassion
towards asylum-seekers."

Voters in a majority of Switzerland's cantons supported the proposal. However, the country saw wide regional variations. All of Switzerland's French- and Italian-speaking cantons rejected the proposal, while support was strongest in the country's German-speaking heartland.

By Albert H. Lee