Online Dossier: Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga's Four-Day Working Visit to Sri Lanka

Press Release, FDJP, 05.08.2018

Swiss Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga, head of the Federal Department of Justice and Police (FDJP), is traveling to Sri Lanka for a four-day working visit to intensify cooperation between the two countries. She is keen to see for herself Switzerland’s activities in various areas such as reconciliation, dealing with the past and strengthening of the rule of law in the country. Also on the agenda are the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the establishment of a migration partnership and various meetings with government and civil society representatives.

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Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga and Seneviratne Bandara Nawinne, Minister of Interior of Sri Lanka, right, sign a memorandum of understanding concerning a migration partnership
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Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga and Seneviratne Bandara Nawinne, Minister of Interior of Sri Lanka, sign a memorandum of understanding concerning a migration partnership (photo: FDJP)

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Memorandum of understanding

Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga meets Thalatha Atukorale, Minister of Justice and Prison Reforms of Sri Lanka
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Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga meets Thalatha Atukorale, Minister of Justice and Prison Reforms of Sri Lanka (photo: Keystone, Patrick Hürlimann)

Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga is welcomed by Maithripala Sirisena, President of Sri Lanka
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Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga is welcomed by Maithripala Sirisena, President of Sri Lanka (photo: Presidential Media Division)

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Claudia Paixao, Advisor Migration and Development, Helvetas, Menique Amarasinghe, Head of National Office, UNHCR, Shiranthi Jayatilaka, Head of Helvetas Sri Lanka, Simonetta Sommaruga, Federal Councillor, Federal Departement of Justice and Police, Switzerland, Shantha Kulasekara, Head of Migration Governance and Border Management, International Organisation of Migration, f.l.t.r., in an exchange about migration issues in Colombo, on Sunday, 5 August 2018. (KEYSTONE/Patrick Huerlimann)

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Infographic: Bilateral relations Switzerland + Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has been especially important to Switzerland’s comprehensive foreign policy on migration for decades. Following the almost thirty-year-long armed conflict, many displaced persons found refuge in Switzerland. Today, Switzerland is home to around 51,000 Sri Lankans, almost half of whom have acquired Swiss citizenship. At the same time, the number of asylum applications has fallen considerably in recent years. In October 2016, Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga signed a migration agreement with Sri Lanka, which provides the framework for increased cooperation. This cooperation is to be intensified with the establishment of a migration partnership. The migration partnership is an objective of the interdepartmental working group on Switzerland’s foreign policy on migration. The Federal Council approved the signing in June 2018 and instructed Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga, head of the Federal Department of Justice and Police (FDJP), to sign a Memorandum of Understanding to that effect.

Switzerland has supported Sri Lanka since 2001. When Switzerland first became involved, the priorities were peace policy and humanitarian aid. Switzerland currently supports Sri Lanka in the implementation of its labour migration policy with an SDC programme which provides migrant workers with information, legal assistance and advice. This involvement helps to provide people and their family members in Sri Lanka with long-term prospects and enables them to contribute meaningfully to the country’s development.

Swiss support to Sri Lanka began in 2001. Initially, the priorities were peace policy and humanitarian aid in an effort to alleviate the consequences of the civil war and the tsunami of 26 December 2004. At the same time Switzerland advocated respect for human rights. The almost thirty-year-long armed conflict in Sri Lanka forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. Many displaced persons found refuge in Switzerland. As a result, Switzerland is currently home to approximately 51,000 Sri Lankans, around half of whom have meanwhile acquired Swiss citizenship. (FDFA: Bilateral relations Switzerland-Sri Lanka)

Since 2010, the SDC has supported a programme in Sri Lanka promoting safe and regular labour migration (Safe Labour Migration Programme, SLMP). The programme is part of Switzerland’s broader commitment on the issue in South Asia and the Middle East. The SLMP strengthens the rights of migrant workers and makes labour migration safer. This in turn helps to provide people with prospects for the future and contributes to Sri Lanka’s long-term development.

The State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) is active on the ground, too. For example, it offers individual return assistance to returnees and, among other things, has supported a vocational education and training project in the north and east of the country since 2014. This project offers young people education and training to improve their employment opportunities on the domestic labour market, thus offering them an alternative to emigration.

Switzerland also focuses on reconciliation after the long-running armed conflict and on dealing with the past. It supports Sri Lanka in strengthening the rule of law and achieving constitutional reform. Switzerland supports the independent human rights commission and the organisations of families of the numerous people who have disappeared. Furthermore, Switzerland and Sri Lanka intend to strengthen cooperation between the two countries on legal assistance in criminal matters. To that end, they signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in Colombo at the end of 2017. (FOJ press release)

In its long-standing work in Sri Lanka, Switzerland’s current focus is on providing support in the reform and reconciliation process and intensifying bilateral relations between the countries. Switzerland adopts a comprehensive approach in its foreign policy on migration, as well, consistently integrating migration, development and other aspects. In February 2011, the Federal Council set up the interdepartmental structure for coordination of international cooperation on migration (ICM structure) to ensure coherence in its foreign policy on migration. The structure is made up of representatives of the FDJP, the FDFA and the EAER. Each year, the ICM draws up a report on its activities and objectives, which is adopted by the Federal Council.

The conclusion of a memorandum of understanding to establish a migration partnership is an objective of the 2018 report. The Federal Council adopted the report in April 2018 and submitted it to the relevant parliamentary committees. The Federal Council approved the signing of the MoU in June 2018. (FDFA: Switzerland’s foreign policy, SDC press release: Swiss involvement in in Sri Lanka, FDFA: federal government strategy on Sri Lanka)

Switzerland’s asylum and return practice always takes into account the current situation in the countries of origin. The practice for Sri Lanka was last updated in the first half of 2016 after the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) re-evaluated the safety and human rights situation in Sri Lanka on an official visit. This came after a moratorium on decision-making imposed from summer 2013 until May 2014 following the arrest of two Sri Lankans upon their return to Sri Lanka after their asylum applications were rejected in Switzerland. The matter was investigated in great detail, also on the ground. The two men concerned are now free. (SEM press release: Final report on arrest of two asylum seekers)

Overall security has improved in the former conflict zone in the north of the country. Furthermore, the country has made significant progress in the protection of human rights, namely in terms of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. However, some shortcomings remain.

While SEM takes these circumstances into account in its routine assessment of individual asylum applications, it considers enforcement of removal to all parts of Sri Lanka acceptable since 2016.

In 2017, Sri Lanka accounted for the sixth largest number of asylum applications received by Switzerland. The proportion of successful applications was around 71% in 2014 and 58% in 2015 and currently stands at 32%. (SEM press release: Adaptation of asylum and return practice - not in English, SEM: Focus Sri Lanka 2016, Asylum statistics 2017 - not in English)

The intensification of political relations is evidenced by the many high-level meetings held in recent years:Following his visit to Sri Lanka in March 2015, Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter met Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera in Bern in March 2016;

  • In September 2015, Simonetta Sommaruga, who was president at the time, met Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena on the margins of the UN General Assembly;
  • On 22 January 2016, Swiss president Johann Schneider-Ammann and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe met in Davos;
  • In October 2016, Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga signed a migration agreement with Sri Lanka. The agreement provided the framework for closer cooperation between Switzerland and Sri Lanka on migration issues;
  • The signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) scheduled for August 2018 for the establishment of a migration partnership will further strengthen bilateral cooperation, mainly in the area of human rights, vocational training for young people and labour migration as part of regional cooperation. (FDJP press release: Federal Councillor Sommaruga signs migration agreement with Sri Lanka)

Return agreement
A return agreement (or "readmission agreement") regulates the basic principles, rules, procedures and deadlines for operational cooperation on identification and the return of foreign nationals who are the subject of removal orders.

Migration agreement
A migration agreement is more far-reaching than a return agreement and regulates bilateral cooperation with the countries of origin and of transit in the areas of capacity building, the combating of irregular migration, integrated border management and facilitation of return. As such, it goes beyond a simple return agreement and provides a legal framework for broader cooperation.

Migration partnership
A migration partnership is an expression of the mutual will of two states to further develop existing bilateral cooperation and to work more closely on migration than would be possible within the scope of a migration agreement. Migration partnerships can include all areas related to migration that are of interest to both partners. This increases the understanding on both sides of the opportunities and challenges faced in migration and provides opportunities for further cooperation.
Thematic areas for extended cooperation are set out in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). The latter does not create any new legal rights or obligations. The MoU establishes a commitment to promote dialogue between the two signatory states, to intensify and extend bilateral cooperation on migration and development and to identify constructive solutions to the challenges of global migration.

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