Secretive Switzerland immigration cope with China fuels concern | China
According to the human rights watchdog Safeguard Defenders, Switzerland has given Chinese security agents free rein within its borders and the rest of Europe for five years as part of a secret immigration agreement between the two countries.
As the deal officially expired this week, Safeguard Defenders warned in a report released Thursday that it needed to be renewed.
The agreement allows Chinese officials to visit Switzerland for up to two weeks to interview nationals who are illegally residing in the European country and to bring them back to China.
While Switzerland has similar agreements with immigration authorities from 52 other countries and territories, including Hong Kong and Macau, its deal with China is unique in that it grants powers to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security as opposed to immigration officials, according to Safeguard Defenders.
These officials will be given access to investigate “irregular immigration” as opposed to “illegal immigration” as outlined in agreements with countries, the organization said.
“In China, the Ministry of Public Security is the most important power structure after the Communist Party itself, and it is through the MPS that the party exercises its authority over perceived threats,” said Michael Caster, senior adviser at Safeguard Defenders.
“The real question is why Switzerland would agree to a bilateral partnership with a government agency known for widespread and systematic human rights violations, including torture, especially when this partnership involves the surveillance, custody and return of people who are exposed to the risk of abuse. ” he said.
The deal was signed in 2015 but not made public, so even Swiss parliamentarians in the country’s foreign affairs committee knew nothing about it, according to the Swiss news agency ZZ am Sonntag, which first published the story in August.
MPs were reportedly not notified as the deal was viewed as an “administrative” matter, the newspaper said.
The text of the document is also not available online. The Swiss State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) offers a link to the agreement on its government website. However, if you click the link, no document will be uploaded.
The SEM confirmed the existence of the agreement with Al Jazeera in response to written questions, saying it was neither unlisted nor confidential. “The full text was always sent on request,” said spokesman Lukas Rieder.
According to Rieder, the Swiss migration authorities, together with the cantons, decide which people are introduced to a delegation of visitors and then organize the mission.
The length of the stay depends on the number of interviews that take place in the SEM offices, and the visitor delegation has no influence on the time they spend in Switzerland.
“The Chinese authorities do not receive any information about people who are at risk or who have been persecuted,” Rieder emphasized that the only information was only provided for identification purposes. “No sensitive data or information is provided that could endanger the data subjects” or their relatives.
He added that while a continuation of the agreement is “in Switzerland’s interest”, its renewal is “not urgent”.
Operation Fox Hunt
ZZ am Sonntag reported earlier that although the agreement was not used to deport Uyghurs or Tibetans, others may have been victims of it.
On the one known occasion that the agreement was activated in 2016, Chinese agents visited Switzerland to remove 13 people, including four asylum seekers, the newspaper said.
Caster said the agreement could also have been used to conduct campaigns of influence in Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe as the Schengen system gives security agents unrestricted access across much of the continent.
While Safeguard Defenders said they had not found any specific evidence in the case, China was known to be conducting similar operations outside of its borders, including forcibly repatriating and harassing its own citizens.
Known as Operation Fox Hunt or Operation Sky Net, the campaign has intensified under Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has led anti-corruption campaigns across China since taking office in 2012.
Chinese state news agency Xinhua said the operation had returned nearly 6,000 people to China since 2014, including 1,425 Communist Party members.
The most famous cases include Xiao Jianhua, a Sino-Canadian billionaire who was kidnapped from his hotel room in Hong Kong in 2017, and Gui Minhai, a Sino-Swedish bookseller who was picked up from Thailand in 2015. Former Interpol boss Meng Hongwei was picked up when he returned to China from France in 2018.
Security forces have also harassed Chinese citizens living abroad and dissidents. In October, the US Department of Justice sued eight Chinese nationals for stalking and coercing Chinese people abroad to encourage them to return to China.
“We have clearly seen the length of time Chinese security officials have taken to kidnap Chinese citizens from other sovereign nations or conduct elaborate surveillance or influence campaigns, and where there is a loophole, we can be sure that agents of the Chinese state are looking for ways have to take advantage of this, “said Caster.
“As long as secret agreements like this one with the Swiss government allow unrestricted access to Chinese security agents, we can never rule out a greater degree of abuse.”