GENEVA – Swiss voters ratified new asylum and immigration laws on Sunday, making it more difficult for refugees to receive assistance in Switzerland and effectively blocking unskilled workers outside Europe from moving to the country.
Over 67 percent voted in favor of the stricter rules on asylum, originally approved by the Swiss government in December, the office of the federal government said, announcing official results. The proposal was overwhelmingly accepted in all of Switzerland's 26 states.
The government says the law is designed to prevent abuses in the system caused by non-refugees finding ways to stay indefinitely in Switzerland. It facilitates easier repatriation of people whose asylum requests have been rejected, which the government says will allow it to devote more resources to real refugees.
Those refusing to leave despite a rejected application can now be denied social welfare. Adults deemed to be only posing as refugees can be imprisoned for up to two years, and children for one year, even if they are never charged with a crime.
"We take note the results of referendum and regret that it has been adopted," said William Spindler, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency.
The Geneva-based body has criticized the law as being one of Europe's strictest and noted that its adoption comes at a time when asylum applications in Switzerland have reached a two-decade low.
Critics contend the new requirements will close the door on victims of war and persecution around the world who are unable to produce valid identity papers within 48 hours of entering Switzerland as the law demands.
They say the bill — passed after heavy campaigning by the right-wing Swiss People's Party and its billionaire leader Christoph Blocher — is unrealistic in expecting rape or torture victims to be able to furnish such papers when fleeing their homes. Rights groups have said it could lead to violations of international law.
"Many don't have the opportunity to obtain documents," Spindler told The Associated Press. "There are historical examples of oppressive authorities getting rid of documents and it is also true today."
There were 10,061 asylum applications in Switzerland last year, a 30 percent drop compared with figures from 2004, according to the U.N. refugee agency. People from Serbia, Turkey, Iraq and Russia are the most frequent to seek refugee status in the country. Numbers have continued to fall this year, even if Switzerland as a country of 7.4 million people remains in proportion to its population one of the world's top destinations for asylum seekers.
The country's cherished system of direct democracy means that the people's consent is required on any major issue. Referendums occur regularly throughout the year.
Voters also said yes in a separate referendum over new immigration criteria with 68 percent approving the government's legislation. The law is designed to tackle problems with integrating foreigners and its supporters say it will alleviate unemployment, which has risen to an estimated 5.5 percent.
It also is designed to work as a corrective to greater European immigration now that a series of agreements with the rest of the continent have been approved. The law essentially prevents all non-skilled workers living outside Europe from moving to Switzerland.
Over 20 percent of all people currently living in Switzerland are foreign nationals, one of the highest rates in the world. Over half of all foreigners come from non-European countries — who opponents of the law say will be unfairly given the status of second-class immigrants.