Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, although the law restricts speech involving racial hatred and denial of crimes against humanity. The government generally respected these rights. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits hate speech, such as public incitement to racial hatred or discrimination, spreading racist ideology, and denying crimes against humanity, including via electronic means. It provides for punishment of violators by monetary fines and imprisonment of up to three years. There was one conviction under this law as of October.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. The law’s restriction on hate speech and denial of crimes against humanity also applies to print, broadcast, and online newspapers/journals. According to federal law, it is a crime to publish information based on leaked “secret official discussions.”
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
According to the Federal Statistical Office, 90 percent of the adult population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Authorities may detain asylum seekers who inhibit authorities’ processing of their asylum requests, subject to judicial review, for up to six months while adjudicating their applications. The government may detain rejected applicants for up to three months to assure they do not go into hiding prior to forced deportation, or up to 18 months if repatriation posed special obstacles. The government may detain minors between the ages of 15 and 18 for up to 12 months pending repatriation. Authorities generally instructed asylum seekers whose applications were denied to leave voluntarily but could forcibly repatriate those who refused.
Following media reports of asylum seekers younger than 15 being held in deportation prisons, authorities in the cantons of Zurich and Bern decided to stop incarcerating asylum seekers who are minors; the Federal Council announced in October that the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) will instead task cantons with establishing alternative accommodation for asylum-seeking minors. Members of parliament alleged that the practice breached the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Federal Council stated that the practice occurs very rarely.
In September the UN Committee against Torture called the SEM’s attempt to deport an asylum-seeking Eritrean torture victim back to Italy “inhumane” on the grounds that the man’s psychiatric condition required a re-examination. The SEM’s investigation into the case was pending as of November.
The SEM stated that many unaccompanied minors fled the country’s official reception centers after applying for asylum, and authorities were unable to verify their whereabouts. The NGO Terre des Hommes expressed concern over missing underage asylum seekers becoming victims of trafficking. Terre des Hommes further stated that some cantons did not consistently report disappearances of underage asylum seekers. According to data from the Federal Statistical Office, sexual violence in asylum housing was on the rise, with authorities recording 33 cases of sexual violence in 2017, including six cases of child sex abuse and eight rapes. NGO Terre des Femmes noted that asylum centers often restricted the private sphere and safety of female refugees, due to bedrooms and bathrooms not always being gender segregated. According to the NGO, perpetrators of sexual violence comprised asylum seekers, caregivers, and security personnel.
On July 12, the NCPT released its annual report on deportation flights. Between April 2017 and March, the country forcibly deported 317 persons, including 28 families and 28 children, to their countries of origin. The NCPT regarded the treatment of deportees as generally professional. The committee, however, criticized the deportation of seven-months’ pregnant women and the staggered repatriation of asylum-seeking families that led to the separation of family members during deportation. The committee continued to observe inconsistent deportation practices among the cantons.
NGOs working with refugees continued to complain that officials often effectively denied detained asylum seekers proper legal representation in deportation cases due to their financial inability to hire an attorney. Authorities provided free legal assistance only during the initial phase of the asylum application process and in cases of serious criminal offenses, deeming deportation of asylum seekers an administrative, rather than a judicial, process.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: While the government generally did not force asylum seekers to return to countries where their lives or freedom may be threatened, there were reportedly exceptions. In July the Federal Administrative Court ruled Eritrean asylum seekers may still be deported to their home country even if they faced military conscription upon their return. The court stated that while conditions during Eritrean national service are reportedly difficult, they are not so severe as to make deportation unlawful. The court further concluded that cases of abuse and sexual assault were not widespread enough to influence the assessment. The ruling followed previous criticism by the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants over the Administrative Court’s February 2017 decision to no longer grant protection to Eritrean asylum seekers who illegally departed their country.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government required asylum applicants to provide documentation verifying their identity within 48 hours of completing their applications; authorities, under the law, are to refuse to process applications of asylum seekers unable to provide a credible justification for their lack of acceptable documents or to show evidence of persecution.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The SEM relied on a list of “safe countries.” Asylum seekers who originated from or transited these countries generally were ineligible for asylum. The country is a signatory to the EU’s Dublin III Regulation.
Employment: The law prohibits asylum seekers from working during the first three months following their arrival in the country, and authorities can extend that prohibition for an additional three months if the SEM rejects the asylum application within the first three months. After three months asylum seekers may seek employment in industries with labor shortages, such as in the hospitality, construction, healthcare, or agricultural sectors.
Access to Basic Services: The cantons assumed the main responsibility for providing housing, general assistance, and care to asylum applicants during the processing phase. Shortages of appropriate housing for asylum seekers remained a problem. Asylum seekers have the right to basic medical care, and the children of asylum seekers are entitled to attend school until ninth grade (the last year for which school is mandatory).
A study published in August 2017 by Bern’s University of Applied Sciences reported shortages in asylum centers’ health-care services for pregnant women. According to the report, a lack of translation services prevented patients from receiving adequate psychological support, while access to female-specific contraception was limited due to the unsubsidized cost of the prescription.
To accommodate increasing numbers of asylum seekers, the SEM continued to house hundreds of asylum seekers in remote rural areas or in decommissioned military establishments–several of them underground–retrofitted to serve as short-term housing. In May 2017 the SEM commenced a pilot project to end the ban on mobile phones for asylum seekers and took additional steps to provide suitable care for minor asylum seekers in federal centers.
Durable Solutions: In 2016 the government announced it would accept an additional 2,000 Syrian refugees until 2019 as part of a UNHCR resettlement program. In 2015 the government agreed to accept 3,000 Syrian refugees between 2015 and 2018 under the UNHCR resettlement program. As of August, 2,231 of these had arrived in the country.
Temporary Protection: In 2017 the government granted temporary admission to 8,419 individuals, 966 of whom the government designated as refugees.