Swiss voters head to the polls Sunday to decide whether to tighten Switzerland's asylum laws. If passed, the initiative would turn Switzerland into the toughest country for refugees to enter in Europe.
Providing safe haven from persecution has been a Swiss tradition for centuries. Protestant Huguenots fled France in the 17th century for Geneva and contributed to Switzerland's economic development as a financial powerhouse in Europe.
In more recent times, Kosovar Albanians, sought shelter in Switzerland during the late 1990s to escape ethnic fighting and destruction that took place during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
But this centuries-old tradition may be in jeopardy if Swiss voters uphold a referendum put forward by the populist, right-wing Swiss People's Party. The party, which earlier this year sought unsuccessfully to keep Switzerland out of the United Nations, wants to see the country's refugee laws tightened to prevent what it calls "asylum tourism."
Swiss People's Party official Pierre Schifferli says his party does not have a problem welcoming genuine refugees fleeing persecution, but it wants to stop economic migrants from using Switzerland's laws to claim political asylum. He says Switzerland faces this problem, especially from migrants who are refused entry into neighboring Italy.
"These people, the Italians do not want them, so they just send them to Switzerland and they know the Swiss are good guys," he said. "The Swiss will consider many of those immigrants to be actually political refugees, although they are not political refugees. They are just immigrants, economic immigrants. That is what we want to avoid absolutely with this new constitutional provision."
The initiative put forward by the Swiss People's Party states that Switzerland will only consider refugees who enter directly from their home country.
The U.N. refugee agency, based in Geneva, says it is extremely concerned about the initiative.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Rupert Colville says refugees may find themselves caught in a political limbo because most refugees arrive in Switzerland over land from neighboring countries. He says the asylum seekers could be stuck at Switzerland's borders, unable to travel forward or to remain in the neighboring countries.
"It is very hard to get onto airplanes if you do not have the right paperwork and it is quite hard for refugees to get the right paperwork so it is sort of a Catch-22," he said.
Mr. Colville argues that some genuine refugees could be rejected outright, because their claim would never come under proper consideration under the proposed referendum.
Although the Swiss government in Berne does not support the initiative it is up to Swiss people to decide, according to the country's direct democratic rule system. Swiss President Kaspar Villigar says he hopes his people will reject the referendum, but in the current climate of growing unemployment and concerns about crime, the Swiss may choose to turn inward.
"Now, I am not so sure how really the climate is. And what we can do, we do to try to convince the people to say, 'No,' to this initiative," he said. "I think one of the problems of this initiative is also more than the initiative itself. It creates a bad climate, a bad discussion in this country and I have a certain concern."
Swiss People's Party official Pierre Schlifferli, who is a lawyer, claims the majority of those involved in drug trafficking in Switzerland are people coming from West Africa and Kosovo. But U.N. refugee agency spokesman Rupert Colville says leaving refugees in a political limbo without hope or sufficient financial support may create more crime and despair.