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Administrative detention What prison is like for failed asylum seekers

Une prison

More than 5000 asylum seekers are locked up in Swiss prisons every year.

(Pixabay)

Thousands of unsuccessful asylum seekers are imprisoned each year in Switzerland before being expelled from the country. swissinfo.ch spoke to two of them. 

In Switzerland, as in several European countriesexternal link, it is possible to end up in prison without having committed a crime. The Federal Act on Foreign Nationalsexternal link gives cantons the possibility to lock up failed asylum seekers before their expulsion. This measure of restraint, specific to asylum seekers and foreigners, is called “administrative detention”. It can extend to a maximum duration of 18 months for adults, and 15 months for minors between 15 and 18 years old. 

The imprisonment of minors under age 15 is prohibited under the law. The use of administrative detention varies greatly from one canton to another, but between 2011 and 2017, it was used an average 5,800 times each yearexternal link across Switzerland. 

We met with two adult migrants who had experienced administrative detention in Geneva and agreed to tell their stories. As their requests for asylum in Switzerland remain unresolved, we have decided not to use their full names. 

A closed building with a little yard

Ali from Iran arrived in Switzerland in 2015 and received a negative decision regarding his request for asylum four months later. The authorities demanded he go to Geneva while waiting to be sent back to Spain, the country through which he transited, and which was therefore responsible for examining his asylum request under the Dublin Regulationexternal link. Installed in a hostel in Geneva, Ali was woken up in the middle of the night. 

“Four police officers entered my bedroom, put me in handcuffs and packed my bags. They took me to the airport and put me in a cell. Then they put me on the plane.” 

Ali was afraid to go to Spain because his country’s embassy there was known for its threats and for reporting those who had emigrated. He demanded to speak to the pilot of the plane and explain to him why he refused to leave. The pilot allowed him to leave the plane just before it took off. 

“The police officers were furious. They threatened me and they told me that the next time I wouldn’t leave as a normal passenger, but I would be bound and would have to wear a hood on my head.” 

He was placed in prison with other asylum seekers awaiting expulsion. 

“I saw this closed building with just a small yard where we were allowed to walk for just one hour a day. My moral was at its lowest, to find myself there, it was really terrible for me. I went on a hunger strike the day I arrived in prison.” 

Ali stopped eating and drinking. After three days, he fainted and spent a night in hospital, where the doctors injected him with a serum to help him regain his strength. But he continued not to eat and after two weeks, he had lost eight kilos. He was again ill and returned to hospital in the basement of the building, a locked area that was guarded and reserved for sick detainees. 

Thanks to the intervention of his lawyer who appealed to the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), the actions of the prison chaplain and the intervention of his sister who lives in Switzerland, Ali was finally released after a few days. He was transferred to a bed on the hospital floor. 

“They think that Switzerland treats foreigners quite well but there are very difficult situations which one does not see,” says Ali. “Refugees leave their country because they have experienced things which are very difficult, they are not criminals. They should not be treated as such.”

The SEM agreed to examine his request for asylum. Ali is still waiting a final decision on whether he will be able to stay in Switzerland.

I didn’t understand why I was in prison when all I did was request asylum’​​​​​​​

Mohamed from Eritrea lodged a request for asylum in Switzerland about five years ago. His request was quickly rejected because he had transited through Italy and, according to the Dublin Regulation, should have his asylum request processed there. The authorities imprisoned him in Geneva for three months before sending him back to Italy.

“I was very surprised, I didn’t understand at all why I was in prison when all I did was request asylum,” says Mohamed. Mohamed did not speak English well and interpreters were quite scarce. He later learned that he had been imprisoned because he did not have the correct papers to enter Switzerland.

Mohamed was sent back to Italy, where he did not stay long. He wanted to get to Germany because he has family there. But again he went through Switzerland, which apprehended him, arrested him and sent him back to Geneva where he was detained twice, once for a period of a month and a half, and once for two months, before finally being freed without being sent back.

“The hardest thing is that we don’t really understand why, we don’t understand the system,” he says.

Mohamed is also familiar with prison in Eritrea and says that the incarceration conditions are better in Switzerland.

“But prison is still prison, we are deprived of freedom.”

Mohamed would just like the chance to live quietly somewhere. “I am still young, I am still able to motivate myself and try things, I am going to continue to move forward.”

The SEM has agreed to examine his request for asylum but has not yet communicated its decision.

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