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Swiss hesitate to offer shelter to large numbers of Afghan refugees

Justice Minister Keller-Sutter (left) and Foreign Minister Cassis expressed concern about the security situation in Afghanistan. Keystone/Peter Klaunzer

The government has agreed to take in about 230 people from war-torn Afghanistan but has no plans for now to accept larger groups of refugees.

This content was published on August 18, 2021 - 15:54
swissinfo.ch/urs

Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter said she understood the concerns of many Afghans worried about the Taliban takeover. But she dismissed allegations that the government’s policy runs against Switzerland’s humanitarian tradition.

“We have to be realistic,” Keller-Sutter told a news conference on Wednesday. “Providing help on the ground and ensuring the evacuation of Swiss nationals and local employees of the Swiss development agency take priority for the government.”

She said the security situation in Afghanistan was precarious and not even the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) was yet able to assess the needs of a possible resettlement programme.

Keller-Sutter said the Swiss government would examine additional asylum requests on a case-by-case basis, and she didn’t rule out the approval of a larger refugee contingent at a later stage.

Not enough

In a first reaction, the non-governmental Swiss Refugee CouncilExternal link has criticised the government decision as insufficient.

"What is needed besides speedy evacuations and humanitarian aid are facilitated visa procedures for Afghan refugees, family reunions and an additional resettlement contigent for humanitarian crises," the organisation said.   

Humanitarian groups and left-wing political parties have called on the government to take in up to 10,000 people.

The 230 Afghan refugees – local employees of the Swiss development agency and their families – are part of a total annual contingent of 800 vulnerable people from conflicts around the world to be granted asylum in Switzerland this year.

Evacuation

Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis told the news conference that preparations for the evacuation were underway, but that given the volatile situation it was difficult to ensure a seat on a plane leaving the single airport in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

He said Switzerland was cooperating closely with its partners, notably Germany and the United Sates, and would use every opportunity to evacuate the remaining 30-odd Swiss citizens and the local development aid employees.

Special Swiss army forces have arrived in Kabul to help organise the evacuation, he said.

The last three staff members of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) were flown to Switzerland on Tuesday.

It is not clear when the SDC office in Kabul will reopen but aid projects will continue and be adapted, he said.

Cassis reiterated that it was too early to say whether the Swiss government will be able to have talks with Taliban leaders but that humanitarian organisations would try to keep the channels of communication open.

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