On 29 November 2013, the Swiss Federal Council announced a re-application of former restrictions on family reunification rights for Syrians residing in Switzerland.

From 4 September to 29 November 2013, the Swiss government extended the family reunification rights of Syrians residing lawfully in Switzerland to cover non-core relatives in the region. As a result, siblings, grandparents, parents, children over the age of 18 and grandchildren residing in Syria or neighbouring countries were treated the same as spouses and children, and were therefore able to obtain a visa to travel to Switzerland and a temporary residence permit. The policy appreciated the difficulties of the Syrian situation: civil registry documents and valid passports were not required, there was no need to show that the person granted temporary protection would leave Switzerland after the expiration of the visa, it was not necessary to show a personal, immediate danger, and financial means were not examined.

However, last week the Swiss government brought the policy to an end, arguing that most of the legitimate visa applications by family members in an immediate emergency have already made use of the facilitation, thereby making further facilitation no longer necessary. However, the Swiss Refugee Council knows of many people who fled Syria in the hope of visa facilitation but, due to waiting times of up to five months at the embassies mentioned above, did not manage to get an appointment until after the suspension of visa facilitation.

Furthermore, the authorities state that in recent weeks Swiss embassies have been faced with a very high number of applications, which has led to waiting times lasting months.

For all pending applications, the visa facilitation is still available but under stricter conditions. Pending applicants will have a duty to leave Switzerland after 90 days (unless they apply successfully for further protection), and their family member in Switzerland will need to demonstrate sufficient financial means. According to the Swiss Refugee Council, some Swiss cantons demand a warranty statement of 30,000 Swiss francs, equivalent to almost 25,000 Euros.

From December 2013 onwards, only immediate core family members (spouses and children under 18 years) can apply for reunification with family regularly residing in Switzerland. Syrians who are granted subsidiary protection in Switzerland can only apply for family reunification for their immediate family members after three years of legal residence in Switzerland and only if they have sufficient means to host and support family members. According to the Swiss Refugee Council, temporary protection (which encompasses both subsidiary protection and protection on humanitarian grounds) is granted to the majority of Syrians in Switzerland.

Non-core family members without pending applications will need to apply for a humanitarian visa, which requires a real and concrete danger to life or physical integrity and an absence of any other country in which refuge can be sought. According to the Swiss Refugee Council, humanitarian visas are almost impossible to acquire because the Swiss authorities assume that there is no concrete danger for the persons who have reached a third country.

According to the Swiss Federal Council, under the visa facilitation scheme, 719 Syrians have entered Switzerland, including 475 women and children. Of these, 385 people have made asylum applications. A total of 1,600 visas have been granted, and a further approximately 5,000 people have reserved an appointment to make a visa application at Swiss embassies.

Denmark has also recently imposed greater visa restrictions on Syrians. As of 1 December 2013, new applications for Schengen visas (intended for short-term stays for business, leisure or tourism) by Syrian nationals will only be granted in exceptional situations, for example, if the applicant has a family member residing in Denmark who faces a life-threatening illness. According to the Danish Ministry of Justice, the restrictions are justified by the fact that in recent years there has been a marked increase in the number of Syrians using a visitor visa to reach Denmark and claim asylum, in the knowledge that it is not currently possible to send people back to Syria.



This article originally appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 06 December 2013
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