Swiss gear up for vote on whether to throw out move to toughen asylum law

GENEVA (AFP) - The Swiss were on Saturday gearing up for a popular vote on whether to throw out a government move to toughen up the asylum law amid a spike in refugees to the wealthy Alpine nation.

Bern had made controversial changes to the asylum law after applications soared to its highest level in over a decade, including removing military desertion from a list of valid grounds for seeking asylum in Switzerland.

Critics of the changes are asking the country's 5.2 million voters to voice their opinion on the issue on Sunday through Switzerland's direct democracy system.

Opinion polls suggest however that they are likely to fail in their bid.

The most recent poll in late May showed 57 per cent of Swiss in favour of the tougher asylum rules.

Among the most controversial changes that took effect last September was the removal of military desertion as a valid reason for asylum.

That has been the key motive used by Eritreans, who accounted for most applications to Switzerland last year, and whose country imposes unlimited and underpaid military service on all able-bodied men and women.

The revision also removed the possibility, which had been unique in Europe, to apply for asylum from Swiss embassies.

That change is "inhumane", according to Mr Aldo Brina, one of the leaders of the opponent coalition, who told Swiss public broadcaster RTS recently that "the possibility to apply from abroad has allowed us to save nearly 2,600 lives since 1981", when the asylum law first took effect.

The populist Swiss People's Party (SVP), which is Switzerland's biggest party and the most ardent supporter of tougher asylum legislation, meanwhile insists the current system is widely abused.

Its programme, illustrated on its website with a picture of white sheep kicking a black sheep off the red and white Swiss flag, insists the only way to help people "really in danger" is to quickly crack down on the abuse and disfunction.

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga meanwhile insists the changes have benefitted the asylum seekers themselves, pointing out that it significantly speeds up the application process.

"Leaving people and their families for so long wallowing in uncertainty is unacceptable," she said recently.

Switzerland currently counts some 48,000 people in the process of seeking asylum, including 28,631 who arrived in 2012.

The surge, attributed in part to the Arab Spring uprisings, marks the highest number since the height of the Balkans war in 1999, when nearly 48,000 people sought refuge in the country.

Also on Sunday, the Swiss will vote on whether the people should elect the country's government members directly instead of having Parliament pick them, as it has done for the past 165 years.

That initiative appears set to fail, according to polls.

There will also be a range of regional and local votes on Sunday, including an initiative to raise taxes on the "super rich" in Zurich, where there will also be a vote on tougher measures against hooliganism.