For nearly three decades, Swiss officials have registered asylum claims based on persecution due to sexual orientation and gender identity. Initially, a predominantly administrative act, the issue is now present and debated in the political space. In these lines, I describe how the issue has developed into an ideologically debated concern.
At least since 1993, the Swiss authorities have been assessing asylum claims based on persecution due to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). (Bertschi 2007) A legal framework was developed, and the issue gradually reached legal and administrative consciousness. Given the topical intersection between the disputed policy fields of asylum and sexuality, it is somehow surprising that the issue emerged only recently in political debates and is still of low salience. In what follows, I will discuss how the debate on SOGI-related asylum claims evolved from a technocratic and subsequently left-wing issue into a subject of ideologically debated concern.
An Issue Owned by the Left
The Green party brought the issue to the fore by arguing that sexual orientation- and gender identity-based persecution was widespread and that the estimated acceptance rate of related cases was relatively low. They highlighted a need for action. (Grüne 2009)
In 2009, a motion demanding to include SOGI explicitly into the asylum law was filed by Prelicz-Huber (Greens). However, the Federal Council concluded that the current categorization of “specific social group” was inclusive enough. The National Council shared this evaluation and rejected the request by 125 to 64 votes, signaling a clear verdict that mirrored a clear political division. (Curia Vista 2009a)
The Green and the Social Democratic fractions of the National Council unanimously supported the claim, while the others rejected it. In a statement for a newspaper, a member of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), Mr Fehr highlighted an enhanced risk of abuse of the system, as a motive for rejecting the claim. He further stated that such an adaptation of the asylum law would lead to “hundreds of thousands of new refugees.” (Pomper 2010)
Up until 2018, sexual orientation- and gender identity-based asylum were on the National Council’s agenda for at least nine times. The interpellations covered, among other aspects, practices of decision-making and adequate accommodation. The Federal Council deemed street-level bureaucrats’ training as appropriate and assessed the current practices as sufficient. Only one interpellation did not originate from the left-wing. (Curia Vista 2009b; 2013a&b; 2014a, b&c; 2017; 2018)
Local Politics and Fundamental Debates
By 2017, the topic had reached the sub-national level. Authorities in Basel-Stadt, Bern and Zürich responded to related interpellations and motions, mostly originating from the left. The executives demonstrated awareness of the concerns, even though the willingness for a national commitment was partly found wanting. The authorities of Zürich reinforced their aim of being a role model and Bern included the issue of accommodations for LGBT-asylum seekers in their Action Plan for Equality 2019-2022. The executive of Basel-Stadt, though, questioned the appropriateness of uniform rules of accommodations and prioritized instead recommendations and individual solutions. (Zürich 2017a&b; Basel-Stadt 2019; Bern 2019 & 2020)
Zürich’s case was, however, the most revelatory one. By autumn 2017, the 14 known cases were already accommodated in individualized solutions. A postulate by Sangines and Denoth (Social Democrats) to institutionalize this practice of individual accommodations was clearly accepted. However, the request sparked a vigorous discussion, that is, within 45 minutes, differing priorities and worldviews were displayed. (Zürich 2017a&b)
A Debate With No Holds Barred
The postulate demanding the institutionalization of individual accommodations was supported by an alliance of the left parties and the Christian-Democrats. The Liberals and Green Liberals abstained, and the SVP opposed it. The arguments of the proponents focused on the protection of the people concerned. In regular accommodations, according to the argument, an outing might result in mobbing or other forms of violence. Proven as functional in other cases, separated solutions were described as simple and effective.
The opponents argued in favor of punishing the offenders rather than protecting the potential victims of mobbing. Individual accommodations were further laid-out as ostracism. While stressing the low number of cases, they accused the left of ignoring the alleged problem of non-acceptance of liberal Swiss values by some immigrants.
The debate took a brisk turn and led to highly controversial statements. Members of the SVP were blamed for standing up for LGBTs only due to opportunistic and nationalist motives. By contrast, a representative of the SVP accused the supporters of pursuing higher budgets for the social system. Furthermore, he stated that supporting the claim was inhuman and antisocial, as it would entrap humans and question the dignity of the people in Africa [sic]. (Zürich 2017b)
A New Discourse?
Following the debate, two members of the SVP handed in an interpellation, focusing on whether the necessity of separated accommodations would reveal a failure of the integration offices. It was, moreover, argued that the progressive Swiss culture would demand elucidation rather than exclusion of LGBT asylum seekers in separate accommodations. (Zürich 2018)
As shown, the matter of SOGI-based asylum claims has entered the political space, originally occupied by the left-wing parties. Later, the political right became involved as well. (e.g. GaySVP 2018) However, the debate in Zürich exposed fundamentally differing priorities, that is, the right-wing parties stressed the potential misuse, found potential threats to the supposedly liberal Swiss values, and labeled intolerance as a problem of immigrants. Meanwhile, the left-wing parties argued in favor of the protection and adequate treatment of the concerned people, as well as for uniform solutions concerning the accommodations. (Junge Grüne)
As a subject of both policy-fields of asylum and sexuality, the topic has a high potential of inherent conflict. Over the past years, although there has been an increase in the number of actors involved, the Swiss practice is still considered inadequate and at times incoherent with the UNHCR guidelines. But it is also apparent that the issue is becoming increasingly prominent, both at the institutional and political levels. (Flüchtlingshilfe 2019; SEM 2019; Basel-Stadt 2020) It remains to be seen whether its salience will increase and whether the issue will spark more debate. Regardless of its topicality, SOGI-based asylum is more than a mere administrative act, as the political discourse exposes deeply rooted conflict lines.
Mathis Schnell is a PhD-candidate and teaching assistant (quantitative methods) at the Laboratoire d’études des processus sociaux (LAPS) at the University of Neuchâtel. He holds a master’s degree in political science from the University of Zurich.
– Pomper, Désirée (2010). Schweiz: Asyl für Homosexuelle? 20 Minuten 03.03.2010, 3.
– Bertschi, Martin (2007): Ausländer- und Flüchtlingsrecht. In: Ziegler, Andreas; Bertschi, Martin; Curchod, Alexandre; Herz, Nadja and Montini, Michel (editors). Rechte der Lesben und Schwulen in der Schweiz. Eingetragene Partnerschaft, faktische Lebensgemeinschaft, Rechtsfragen zur Homosexualität. 321-348.
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– Bern (2019): Geschäftdetails Interpellation Rai. [12.07.2020].
– Bern (2020): Geschäftdetails Postulat Rai. [12.07.2020].
– Curia Vista (2009a): Motion 09.3561. [12.07.2020].
– Curia Vista (2009b): Interpellation 09.3562. [12.07.2020].
– Curia Vista (2013a): Frage 13.5496. [12.07.2020].
– Curia Vista (2013b): Interpellation 13.4211. [12.07.2020].
– Curia Vista (2014a): Interpellation 14.3378. [12.07.2020].
– Curia Vista (2014b): Interpellation 14.3373. [12.07.2020].
– Curia Vista (2014c): Interpellation 14.3374. [12.07.2020].
– Curia Vista (2017): Interpellation 17.3588. [12.07.2020].
– Curia Vista (2018): Interpellation 18.4014. 3 [12.07.2020].
– Flüchtlingshilfe (2019): Asylgesuche von LGBTQI-Personen müssen nach besonderen Grundsätzen geprüft werden. [11.11.2020].
– GaySVP (2018): Wer wir sind. [12.07.2020].
– Grüne (2009): Homosexuelle Flüchtlinge brauchen Schutz. [12.07.2020].
– Junge Grüne: Positionspapier Queer. [12.07.2020].
– Staatssekretariat für Migration SEM (2019): Geschlechtsspezifische Verfolgung. [11.11.2020].
– Zürich (2017a): Interpellation Hadi Huber und Brander. [12.07.2020].
– Zürich (2017b): Postulat Sangines und Denoth. [12.07.2020].
– Zürich (2018): Schriftliche Anfrage Iten und Widmer. [12.07.2020].