By BRADLEY S. KLAPPER
The Associated Press
Sunday, September 24, 2006; 12:32 PM
GENEVA -- Swiss voters ratified new asylum and immigration laws Sunday making it more difficult for refugees to receive assistance and effectively blocking non-European unskilled workers from entering the country.
More than 67 percent voted in favor of the stricter rules on asylum, originally approved by the Swiss government in December. The proposal was overwhelmingly accepted in all of Switzerland's 26 cantons, according to results released by the federal government.
The government says the law is designed to prevent abuses in the system caused by non-refugees finding ways to stay indefinitely in Switzerland. It makes it easier to send home people whose asylum requests have been rejected, which the government says will allow it to devote more resources to real refugees.
Those refusing to leave despite a rejected application can now be denied social welfare. Adults deemed to be only posing as refugees can be imprisoned for up to two years, and children can be kept in state custody for one year even if they are never charged with a crime.
"We take note of the results of the referendum and regret that it has been adopted," said William Spindler, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency.
The Geneva-based body has criticized the law as being one of Europe's strictest and noted its adoption comes at a time when asylum applications in Switzerland have reached a two-decade low.
Critics contend the new requirements will close the door on victims of war and persecution around the world who are unable to produce valid identity papers within 48 hours of entering Switzerland, as the law demands.
They say the bill _ passed after heavy campaigning from the right-wing Swiss People's Party and its billionaire leader, Christoph Blocher _ is unrealistic in expecting rape or torture victims to be able to furnish papers after fleeing their homes. Rights groups have said it could lead to violations of international law.
"Many don't have the opportunity to obtain documents," Spindler told The Associated Press. "There are historical examples of oppressive authorities getting rid of documents, and it is also true today."
There were 10,061 asylum applications in Switzerland last year, a 30 percent drop from 2004, according to the U.N. refugee agency. People from Serbia, Turkey, Iraq and Russia were the most frequent to seek refugee status in the country.
Numbers have continued to fall this year, though Switzerland still remains one of the world's top destinations for asylum seekers in proportion to its population of 7.4 million people.
More than 20 percent of all people living in Switzerland are foreign nationals, one of the highest rates in the world. More than half of all foreigners come from non-European countries _ who opponents of the law say will now unfairly become second-class immigrants.
Sixty-eight percent of voters also approved new immigration rules that effectively cut off legal immigration routes for unskilled workers coming from non-European countries. Supporters of the law say it will alleviate unemployment, which has risen to an estimated 5.5 percent.
On a separate issue, voters rejected an initiative to funnel billions of dollars from the central bank's profits in the coming years to prop up the country's pension system.
The plan aimed to annually redirect about $1.2 billion from the Swiss National Bank to the national pension system.
Switzerland is one of a number of European countries battling ballooning pension costs caused by low birth rates and an increasing number of retirees.
Associated Press writer Frank Sieber in Bern contributed to this report.