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Swiss Town Bans Asylum Seekers from Public Spaces

A poster of the Swiss People's Party (SVP) campaign for stringent immigration laws is placed beside a road in the town of Bremgarten, south of Zurich, Switzerland. The poster reads: 'Maria not Sharia !'. (file photo)
A small town in Switzerland says it will ban asylum-seekers from certain public places, including the local swimming pool and library. The move has caused outrage, especially among human rights groups who say it's "racist" and warn the policy could spread to other parts of the country. But analysts say even as politicians across economically stagnant Europe are using anti-immigration rhetoric as a way to gain popular support, national and international laws should protect immigrants’ rights.

The town of Bremgarten is banning asylum seekers from a total of 32 “exclusion zones,” including libraries, playing fields and swimming pools.

The head of Switzerland's Federal Office of Immigration, Mario Gattiker, has said the town wanted to avoid “friction and resentment” between locals and asylum seekers.

But human rights groups said it’s an infringement of the asylum seekers' human rights.

Gerry Simpson, a senior refugee researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the government should block the move.

“There is a clear risk that if Switzerland does not clamp down now on this first town’s attempt to limit freedom of movement we are going to see this replicated all over the country in the next two years,” he said.

The reception center in Bremgarten is the first of nine due to open in Switzerland for housing asylum seekers.

The mayor of another town, Menizngen, where a center is due to open in 2015, has told Swiss media that he plans to introduce similar rules. Asylum seekers, he said, would be banned from “sensitive areas”, including near schools.

Swiss Minister Gattiker said the plans did not breach asylum seekers’ rights to free movement because there were no penalties under Swiss law if the regulations were broken.

But Simpson said asylum seekers could still be punished by the center’s “house rules” - for example, by being stopped from leaving the center altogether.

Simpson said if the government did not back down, the case should be brought to the courts.

“What would really be needed here is a brave asylum seeker - who would have to be very brave - to challenge these rules in front of the Swiss courts,” he said.

Recent changes to Swiss law have made seeking asylum more difficult - including refusing refugee status to conscientious objectors, a policy which had a large impact on applicants from Eritrea.

Alexandre Afonso is an expert on European immigration reforms at King’s College London.

He said despite the changes, Swiss law retained strong protections for refugees - and, if brought to a federal court, Bremgarten would have a difficult case to make.

“The room for maneuver of governments to limit the rights of immigrants is always very constrained either by their international commitments by the EU or by their own domestic courts,” said Afonso.

He said across Europe, particularly with today’s economic tensions, politicians were using immigrants as scapegoats for society’s woes.

But he said domestic courts relatively consistently defended the human rights of immigrants when governments tried to undermine those rights in order to please voters.

But Afonso warned that right-wing, anti-immigration parties were on the rise across Europe and, with enough influence, could turn the tide.

“Changing legal systems always takes time, but I think definitely there is a danger that governments will move away from all this body of legislation that protects human rights in order to show their voters that they have a tough stance on immigration,” he said.

Bremgarten has a population of around 6,500. Its new asylum center can hold around 150 people but right now is just housing a few dozen. They’re allowed to leave the center from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily.

Just under 50,000 people are currently seeking asylum in Switzerland.