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Switzerland goes to the polls on asylum rights

By Clare Maxwell

Fabrice Leggeri, the director of the European border police agency Frontex, resigned in disgrace at the end of April after an investigation revealed his agents had systematically engaged in illegal pushbacks of migrants and asylum seekers. “Pushbacks” are a process where border police prevent asylum seekers from arriving in Europe, forcing them to stay in potentially dangerous third countries, or even leaving refugees stranded on boats in the Mediterranean sea. Between March 2020 and September 2021, Frontex participated in this violation against a documented 957 asylum seekers. While human rights organisations, the European Parliament, activists, and migrants themselves have accused Frontex and Leggeri of violating international law for years, Leggeri’s resignation comes at a time when EU member states are pouring more money and personnel than ever into the agency and the process of militarising European borders.

Switzerland, as a member of the Schengen Zone, participates as a non-voting member in Frontex, and like other states, is under pressure to increase its financial contributions to the agency. Controversy erupted in late 2021 after the Swiss National Council passed a measure to increase Swiss contributions from 24 million CHF annually to 61 million CHF. After this announcement, migration and asylum rights groups collected 62,000 signatures calling for a national referendum over the budget increase. Switzerland only provides a small percentage of the annual Frontex budget, which has grown from just 6 million Euros in 2005 to 543 million in 2021 and is projected to grow to over 1 billion euros by 2027. Proponents of a “No” vote against the budget increase feel that decisive action in Switzerland can set a precedent for the whole of Europe to work to contain Frontex and hold it accountable. 

Despite major human rights and accountability concerns, the majority of the Swiss public is not convinced that withdrawing funding is the answer to this question. Advocates of the “Yes” vote remain particularly concerned that such a move would force Switzerland to leave Frontex, which would compel Switzerland to renegotiate several other bilateral treaties with the EU within a 90 day period. For Swiss politicians and voters who seek a closer relationship with Europe, the annulment and renegotiation of migration, trade and security deals looms as a worst-case scenario, and could possibly result in Switzerland leaving the Schengen zone. This all comes at a time when anxieties over the future of European unity are at a high point due to the rise of authoritarian leaders, the aftershocks of Brexit, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While the referendum was not intended to be a plebiscite on Switzerland’s relationship with the European Union, the potential diplomatic complications of a “No” vote weigh heavily on the debate. 

Supporters of the ‘Yes” vote are also making their case in terms of human rights. They argue that the territorial integrity of the Schengen Zone allows for both freedom of mobility and collective security for European citizens, and that Switzerland is in a better position to advocate for the human rights of refugees if it maintains good relationships with European institutions. This has been hotly contested by the “No” vote group, noting that Switzerland already holds very little decision making power in Frontex, and the agency has often been able to dodge a plethora of existing accountability mechanisms. Even more concerning is the fact that border control and externalisation agreements have become a key factor in Europe’s relationships with countries like Turkey, Libya, and Morocco, with Frontex emerging as a key player in negotiating and enforcing migration policy, all with the goal of reducing migration to Europe. In addition to illegal pushbacks, one of the key accusations that led to the resignation of Fabrice Leggeri was the revelation that Frontex knowingly collaborated with Turkish and Libyan coast guards to prevent refugees and migrants from leaving countries where they faced the active risk of violence and exploitation. As Frontex is growing in terms of its budget and capacity, and its activities are increasingly influential towards European policy across the Mediterranean region, it becomes difficult to imagine how European institutions would be able to enforce a human rights agenda in Frontex without scaling back Frontex operations and mandate. Otherwise, regulators fear that the agency can gain too much independence, with support from conservative EU member states, continue its pattern of evading accountability. Since Europe has approved the expansion of Frontex’s mandate to include activities in non-EU countries as recently as 2019, it’s unclear whether there is the political will to curtail border externalisation and push for humane migration policies in international agreements. 

Swiss voters will end up having a say on May 15th over what the future of Frontex is as an organisation. While a “No” vote will most likely not have an immediate impact on the capacity of the agency, this is the first time a Frontex member state has held a national debate over ending or significantly reducing their financial support of the agency. The Swiss public has a decision to make about their concerns over diplomatic relations with Europe and competing versions of human rights accountability processes. On the one hand, the outcome could endorse enduring European institutions with the hope that those institutions will enact the necessary asylum policy reforms that they have been neglecting for several years. On the other hand, the vote could stand as a rejection of European inability and unwillingness to extend compassion and meet their legal obligations towards refugees and vulnerable migrants. The resignation of Fabrice Leggeri could be either a first step towards reform, or evidence that a complete overhaul of migration management is on the horizon. Either way, the resignation of Leggeri and the Swiss referendum underline the urgency of addressing Frontex’s numerous human rights abuses and taking bold new action to uphold the right to asylum. 

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