Mario Gattiker retires

Mario Gattiker was head of the State Secretariat for Migration for ten years. In that time, Switzerland reshaped almost its entire migration policy.

Mario Gattiker Mai2015 1 2022 02 07 170325 xvnz

Mario Gattiker worked in the field of migration for 36 years and was ‘not bored for a second’. On his retirement at the end of 2021, he said no topic was more inspiring – or more controversial and emotional – than migration.

In the last 20 years, Mario Gattiker has helped shape Swiss migration policy within the Federal Administration. For ten of those years he was the director of the State Secretariat for Migration, which was forged from the Federal Office for Migration in 2015. During his 20 years in the Federal Department for Justice and Police, he worked under five different federal councillors. ‘That, too, was interesting, sometimes challenging, and always enlightening,’ he says.

Much happened during Gattiker’s ten-year directorship. In that time, SEM

  • processed 230,000 asylum requests
  • granted 130,000 persons asylum or temporary admission
  • issued 8,500 humanitarian visas
  • accepted 6,000 resettlement refugees
  • concluded 3 new migration partnerships and 26 new migration agreements
  • revised the Foreign Nationals and Integration Act 17 times
  • implemented 250 Schengen-related developments

Following retirement, Mario Gattiker looks back on 10 key developments in the last 10 years:

The new asylum procedure Pfeil nach unten

In late 2011, the FDJP set out to reorganise the asylum system and accelerate the asylum procedure, which back then often lasted several years. Together, the Confederation and cantons developed a new strategy aimed at decentralising the asylum procedure and fostering close cooperation between all stakeholders. Under the strategy, asylum procedures would be conducted in centres run by the federal authorities and include free legal representation for asylum seekers.

The new system was tested and continually developed in the city of Zurich from 2014. The positive effects of the new measures were certainly one of the reasons 67 per cent of the Swiss electorate voted in June 2016 in favour of the revised asylum act, which came into force on 1 March 2019. It soon became clear that fast-track procedures deter migrants from seeking asylum in Switzerland if they have no prospect of receiving protection.

The new, accelerated asylum procedure works. Today, asylum seekers know much sooner whether they are allowed to stay in Switzerland. If they are, they can quickly join integration programmes enabling them to build a new life.

One of my major concerns has always been that asylum procedures are carried out in accordance with the law; that applies in particular to fast-track procedures. This has proven to be the case, thanks in part to the legal representatives, who play an important role in the asylum procedure.

Resettlement and relocation Pfeil nach unten

A further feature of the asylum system is resettlement, an instrument that was revived in 2013 in the wake of the Syrian crisis. Resettlement enables the most vulnerable – usually women and children – to enter a country legally and receive protection under an admission quota. This also eases the burden on economically fragile countries of first asylum in regions where there is conflict. During the 2015/2016 refugee crisis, Switzerland also participated in the European relocation programme aimed at easing the burden on Italy and Greece, both on the EU’s external borders. We were one of the few countries to honour our commitments, admitting 1,500 people in need of protection.

The federal asylum centres Pfeil nach unten

With the new asylum act, considerably more asylum seekers now spend more time in our federal asylum centres. We therefore had to completely reorganise how they are run. There are now more supervisors and fewer security staff. Those who stay in a federal asylum centre can trust that they will be treated well and with respect. We do not tolerate unacceptable behaviour and we take action if staff do not comply with the rules.

Return Pfeil nach unten

Besides fast and proper procedures, an efficient and credible asylum system requires a consistent and effective return policy. Here, too, we are well on track. The number of people returning home voluntarily is increasing all the time. This is due to the well-designed return assistance scheme. The sooner an asylum seeker decides to leave Switzerland, the greater their financial support. We are able to offer many of them a future perspective in their homeland through projects we have established as part of our migration partnerships or agreements.

We have also achieved positive results in the area of forced return, thanks to close cooperation with many countries of origin. In 2019, for example, 51 per cent of asylum seekers who received a negative asylum decision left Switzerland monitored by the authorities – a quota that is the envy of many European countries. In contrast, only 29 per cent of departures from the EU were monitored exits. Since 2011, we have enforced 82,000 departures and returns following a negative asylum decision.

Security Pfeil nach unten

Within the context of the war in Syria against Islamic State and of the terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels and other places, the issue of security has become significantly more important also at SEM. Cooperation between Schengen states has been intensified, for example through new instruments like SIS II, ETIAS, VIS and interoperability between databases. We also collaborate more closely with our federal security partners, in particular with the Federal Intelligence Service and fedpol. And SEM now also has a new migration and internal security officer at directorate level.

Foreign policy on migration Pfeil nach unten

The global pressure from migration is greater now than ever before. International and Swiss migration and refugee policy must therefore focus on refugees’ regions of origin and migration routes as part of a proactive migration foreign policy. Our national asylum policy must be in line with European migration and asylum policy, for Switzerland is an associated Schengen member and hence part of the Schengen area.

Switzerland’s migration foreign policy is very proactive. For example:

  • it provides assistance on the ground, which helps to prevent people fleeing and to stop irregular migration. It also provides humanitarian aid and supports local authorities in developing efficient and sustainable structures;
  • it takes a collaborative approach based on partnership with countries of origin and transit, an approach that has proven very successful;
  • the Federal Council has recognised the effectiveness of Swiss migration foreign policy and decided this year to gradually increase the SEM budget for international migration cooperation (IMC budget), from CHF 12 million to around CHF 15 million;
  • the departments concerned – the FDFA, EAER and FDJP – collaborate closely within the framework of the Interdepartmental Structure for International Cooperation on Migration (ICM Structure);
  • the dispatch on Switzerland’s international cooperation strategy for 2021-24 sets aside, for the first time, flexible funds for international cooperation. CHF 15 million from the SDC’s budget will be invested annually in countries ‘proposed by SEM’. Hence, the strategic link between international cooperation and migration policy called for by Parliament is being implemented, particularly through the cooperation between SEM and the SDC;
  • Switzerland has six migration partnerships and a further one is nearing conclusion. It also has over 60 migration agreements; that is more than any other country, as far as I know;
  • Switzerland also attaches great importance to cooperating with and strengthening international organisations such as the UNHCR and IOM, besides others. These organisations face major challenges and are very important right now, for instance in the Afghanistan crisis. That is one of the lessons of the 2014/2015 refugee crisis.

A coherent asylum and return policy Pfeil nach unten

Switzerland’s refugee status quota, i.e. the protection rate, reflects its coherent and credible asylum and return policy, and its proactive migration foreign policy. Today, this quota is around 60 per cent; shortly after I joined SEM in 2012 it was approximately 19 per cent. At the same time, Switzerland has slipped down the rankings of European countries considered a destination country by asylum seekers. That means that those who apply for asylum in Switzerland are usually in need of protection. Any person who is not entitled to protection must leave the country quickly, which is why many prefer to apply for asylum in countries where asylum procedures take longer or where repatriation is not consistently enforced. Nine out of ten migrants who are stopped in Chiasso return to Italy and do not wish to apply for asylum in Switzerland. In the last five years, around 125,000 people who were stopped at the border on account of irregular migration were handed over to the Italian authorities.

Legal migration / freedom of movement Pfeil nach unten

Few countries are shaped by immigration as much as Switzerland. Immigration to this country has much to do with the freedom of movement agreed upon with the EU. The continual flow of labour from the EU meets the needs of our economy, but also triggers fears and defensive reactions. This became apparent when the Swiss electorate voted on 9 February 2014 in favour of the initiative to stop mass immigration. As a result and in response to this referendum, Switzerland began regulating legal immigration more tightly and now manages it more actively. For example:

  • various measures have been put in place to promote the potential of the domestic workforce, one of the most important being the obligation to give notice of job vacancies. Immigration for the purpose of employment should only cover demand that cannot be met by the domestic labour force. This should also ensure that immigration does not have a negative impact on wages and working conditions in Switzerland;
  • successful integration is a condition for obtaining a settlement permit or for naturalisation. The Foreign Nationals and Integration Act and the Swiss Citizenship Act have been amended accordingly. Permits can be revoked if a person is unwilling to integrate.

All these measures are aimed at maintaining social harmony. This is anything but a matter of course in a country like Switzerland that has four different languages and cultures, and is shaped so much by immigration. Reconciling the interests of a strong and prosperous economy while maintaining social cohesion remains an ongoing challenge. So far, I think we have done quite well.

Integration Pfeil nach unten

In this area, too, we are in a completely different position than ten years ago. The cantonal integration programmes (CIPs), which we launched in 2014 together with the cantons, provide for a common integration policy aimed at making use of and strengthening migrants’ potential. In response to the 2015 refugee crisis, we also established the Integration Agenda Switzerland in 2018 to complement these programmes. The Agenda defines a uniform integration process for all cantons. Its measures include identifying migrants’ potential, continuous specialist support throughout the integration process and the rapid acquisition of language skills. The measures are aimed at facilitating the fast and long-term integration of recognised refugees and temporarily admitted persons into Switzerland’s education system and labour market. For this purpose, the Confederation increased its integration funding. Our goal is for two-thirds of young people to be in an apprenticeship after five years and for half of all adult migrants to be integrated in the labour market after seven years. In addition, the Confederation, along with the cantons and vocational organisations, has launched pre-vocational integration courses to prepare young people for an apprenticeship. The initial results are promising; around two-thirds of the participants found an apprenticeship within a year.

We invest a lot of money in these integration measures, but we will save several times that amount in social welfare costs if these people are able to provide for themselves and their families after a certain period of time.

SEM Pfeil nach unten

When I took over in 2011, staff satisfaction and their identification with the office had hit rock-bottom: SEM had been through many difficult years. In the last 10 years we have invested a lot of energy in office and management culture, with a particular focus on the participation of the staff and the staff committee. We knew that there was an enormous amount of expertise to draw on. These efforts have paid off: we were able to revise the Asylum Act and reorganise the asylum system largely using our own resources and with very little outside support. Many SEM staff contributed to the success of this complex and time-consuming project. It is a team effort that I am proud of.

We have also improved in staff surveys and are now ranked in the top mid range of the Federal Administration. That is quite an achievement for an office that is highly exposed and often criticised. For let us not forget that in the last 10 years SEM has had to deal with no less than three crises that had a major impact on the migration sector:

  • the Arab Spring, from 2011 to 2012;
  • the 2015 refugee crisis;
  • the COVID-19 pandemic, which had a huge effect both on the asylum sector and on legal migration, with the closure of borders, travel restrictions and desperate couples separated by border fences, like in Kreuzlingen. The staff at SEM were under constant pressure.

I am very glad to be able to hand over such a strong and well-positioned office to my successor, Christine Schraner-Burgener.

2020 08 25 br karin keller sutter1 hd

The end of an era

SEM without Mario Gattiker – one cannot even begin to imagine what it will be like. No one has shaped Swiss migration policy as much as he has. Under his directorship, SEM has become a migration service that is the envy of many European countries. Mario Gattiker has resolved crises, rolled out a new, faster asylum system and established effective cooperation mechanisms with the cantons, with our European partner states and with many countries of origin in the field of return. He has also shaped Switzerland’s hugely successful integration policy. Few countries understand as well as we do the importance of offering people from other cultures long-term prospects on the labour market and future life opportunities. Even if our relationship with the European Union has been easier in the past than it is at present, bilateral relations and the free movement of persons continue to function and to contribute to our prosperity. This, too, is down to Mario Gattiker, who has spent endless hours at the negotiating table in Brussels explaining the reasons behind Switzerland’s position.

Mario Gattiker has been an exceedingly competent, dedicated and astute director. He has brilliant analytical skills, loves challenges and comes into his own when pressure is at its greatest. When not on the political stage or in the public spotlight, he is amusing, warm-hearted, inquisitive and open-minded. His ability to come together with people from all walks of life in conversation and laughter, to listen to them and respect their opinions has opened the door in many difficult situations. Like a lot of you, I will miss him – as SEM director and as an individual. But I am sure we will meet again in another context.

All the best, Mario!

Signature kks

Federal Councillor Karin Keller-Sutter
Bern, November 2021