Federal Councillor Sommaruga on working visit to Sri Lanka and India

Press Release, FDJP, 02.10.2016

Bern. Federal Councillor Sommaruga is scheduled next week to conduct visits to Sri Lanka and India. A prime objective of the working visits is to intensify cooperation with the two countries on migration issues. In Sri Lanka, Federal Councillor Sommaruga will also be seeking to obtain a clearer picture of the status of the national reconciliation process and of the human rights situation.

Ambassador Walker, Chief Minister Wigneswaran, Federal Councillor Sommaruga
enlarge_picture Ambassador Walker, Chief Minister Wigneswaran, Federal Councillor Sommaruga (Photo: FDJP)

The government of Sri Lanka has inaugurated a process for comprehensive democratic reforms. After decades of armed conflict, a new constitution is being drafted to help enable the country to come to terms with its recent past, to achieve reconciliation between all ethnic groups, and to strengthen the rule of law. Switzerland has been actively involved in Sri Lanka for many years now, providing humanitarian assistance and carrying out projects on human rights policy and in the fields of migration and development. It has also furnished the country with support for the reintegration of returnees and in the education sector. Switzerland would like to further intensify its efforts in Sri Lanka in order to assist with the ongoing reform process.

For Switzerland a matter of special importance

Sri Lanka has for many years played an especially important role in Switzerland's foreign policy on migration. In the wake of the armed conflict in that country, many displaced persons sought a safe haven in Switzerland. Today, some 50 000 people from Sri Lanka live in Switzerland; approximately one half have in the intervening years been granted Swiss citizenship. Switzerland is thus home to a relatively large diaspora as compared with the countries of the European Union. In 2015, Sri Lanka ranked fifth among the countries of origin for asylum seekers.

Because the security situation in Sri Lanka has improved and the infrastructure in the north of the country has been largely restored, the execution of repatriation orders to all parts of the country is considered today, in principle, to be a reasonable measure. In July 2016, the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) consequently decided to adapt its practice on such orders accordingly. Federal Councillor Sommaruga hopes now to take advantage of the political talks in Colombo to intensify cooperation between Switzerland and Sri Lanka on migration issues. A bilateral agreement is expected to formalise in writing existing cooperation procedures for the repatriation of persons whose return has been ordered. The planned agreement is intended to define the terms of that cooperation and thus provide additional legal security. It does not, however, call for any changes in the decision-making process of the SEM: as before, the SEM will examine each application for asylum on a case-by-case basis and continue to take into account any existing deficits in the human rights situation.

Discussions with the civil society

On her working visit to Sri Lanka, Federal Councillor Sommaruga will also be holding discussions with representatives of the civil society and with local public authorities. Subjects to be dealt with include the reconciliation process, constitutional reform and human rights.

Ms Sommaruga will also be travelling to the former conflict region in the north of Sri Lanka. There she will also be meeting with returnees from Switzerland and will visit a project for vocational training and continuing education that receives funding from Switzerland and is also open to returnees from Switzerland.

India as the leading third country

Intensification of cooperation on migration issues will also be the subject of the second leg of the Federal Councillor's trip, a one-day visit to India. In terms of numbers, India is the most important third country for Switzerland, both with regard to the granting of permits to work in Switzerland and as concerns the issuance of visas. Among other things, Federal Councillor Sommaruga will be visiting the new Swiss visa application centre in New Delhi. The centre issues approximately 110 000 visas for Switzerland annually. This represents roughly one fifth of all visas issued for Switzerland each year and reflects the large number of tourists that visit Switzerland from India.


Swiss involvement in Sri Lanka

Switzerland began to provide support to Sri Lanka in 2001. At the start of its involvement, the priority was humanitarian aid to mitigate the consequences of the civil war and of the tsunami of 26 December 2004. (SDC Sri Lanka) The armed conflict in Sri Lanka, ongoing for almost 30 years, forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Many displaced people found refuge in Switzerland. Today around 50 000 people from Sri Lanka live in Switzerland, almost half of whom are now Swiss citizens. (FDFA: Bilateral relations Switzerland-Sri Lanka - not in English)

For many years, Switzerland has provided aid in Sri Lanka in a wide variety of fields. For example, the State Secretariat for Migration SEM has assisted individuals to return to their country (SEM: Return assistance) and since 2014, it has supported a vocational training programme in the north and east of the country, among other projects.

Following the election of Maithripala Sirisena as president in 2015, the first steps towards reconciliation in Sri Lanka were taken. Since then, Switzerland has supported Sri Lanka in its processes of reform and reconciliation and has intensified its bilateral ties. In particular, migration cooperation, based on the principles of Switzerland’s foreign policy on migration, has been made a priority. (FDFA: Switzerland’s foreign policy on migration – not in English, SDC: Swiss engagement in Sri Lanka – not in English, FDFA: Federal Strategy on Sri Lanka)

Numerous bilateral meetings are evidence of the closer relations between the countries. After travelling to Sri Lanka in March 2015, Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter met Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera, in Bern in March 2016. On 22 January 2016, Swiss president Johann Schneider-Ammann met Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Davos. And in September 2015, the then Swiss president Simonetta Sommaruga met President Maithripala Sirisena at the UN General Assembly. (SDA media release - not in English, FDFA Strategy Sri Lanka)

Asylum and removal practices

In summer 2013, Switzerland suspended all deportations to Sri Lanka and temporarily stopped issuing related removal orders after two men who had been refused asylum were arrested on returning to Sri Lanka. The case was subjected to a detailed investigation, in Switzerland and in Sri Lanka. The two men are now at liberty again, and the moratorium on removal orders ended completely as of 26 May 2014. (SEM media release: Report on arrest of two asylum seekers - not in English)

In January and February 2016, the SEM re-assessed the security and human rights situation while on an official visit to Sri Lanka. Having taken account of additional information from international organisations and experts, it decided to modify its asylum and removal practices for Sri Lanka (Removal practice – not in English), as the security situation has generally improved in the former conflict region in the north of the country. In addition, considerable progress has been made in safeguarding human rights, for example in relation to freedom of speech and of assembly. However, there is still room for improvement. While the SEM will take these circumstances into account in its standard assessment of individual asylum applications, in principle it now regards enforcing removal orders to all regions of Sri Lanka as a reasonable measure. In 2015, Sri Lanka came fifth on the list of countries of origin for asylum seekers. The acceptance rate for applications was around 71 per cent in 2014, but fell to 58 per cent in 2015 and currently stands at 51 per cent. (SEM media release: Anpassung Asyl- und Wegweisungspraxis - not in English, (SEM media release, Focus Sri Lanka 2016 - not in English)

Relations between Switzerland and India cover a wide range of areas: there is bilateral cooperation on economic and commercial matters, education, aviation, finance, tax, science and technology. Switzerland and India pursue an active policy of diplomatic visits at a high level. In June 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann in Geneva.

Economic and scientific cooperation between Switzerland and India is becoming increasingly important, as India is a priority country for Swiss foreign trade policy. India is Switzerland’s third largest trading partner in Asia, while Switzerland counts as one of the leading ten investors in India. Based on a framework agreement, the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) has become involved in a growing number of projects in India, primarily related to Switzerland’s dual track system of vocational education and training.

Although Switzerland’s traditional development cooperation programme was successfully concluded in 2010 after 50 years, Switzerland remains active in India in the fields of climate change, energy efficiency, and renewable energy sources. It funds a variety of humanitarian aid projects (SDC) and economic cooperation projects (SECO). (See FDFA: Bilateral relations Switzerland-India)

India plays a significant role in Switzerland in migration terms. This is evident from the employment market, where since 2006 India has topped the Swiss statistics table for admissions from third countries, with around 1,700 work permits being issued each year In addition, around a fifth of all Swiss tourist visas are issued to Indian citizens, some 110,000 a year, thus placing India at the head of this particular field. In asylum matters, India has been deemed to be a safe country since 1991. The numbers of asylum seekers from India who come to Switzerland are relatively low, and the acceptance rate for applications in recent years was zero per cent.

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