Swiss authorities are in damage control after it became public knowledge they had a secret 5-year deal that allowed Chinese security agents to “roam freely, unsupervised” in Switzerland.
Human rights NGO Safeguard Defenders have investigated the deal after it became public knowledge thanks to an August 23 report by Swiss German-language newspaper NZZ am Sonntag.
“It seems inconceivable that any western European country would give Chinese security and intelligence agents unfettered access inside its borders,” said Safeguard Defenders in their own report into the deal published December 9. “In late August this year, it became clear that Switzerland had done exactly that.”
Safeguard Defenders became in possession with a copy of the deal that they made available in English. The secret deal was signed on December 8, 2015, and it expired December 7 this year, making it up for renewal.
The deal allowed agents from China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) to enter the country for a period of two weeks without official status. The Safeguard Defenders report stated the deal allowed MPS officials to investigate “irregular immigration” as opposed to “illegal immigration.”
A report by Swissinfo said individuals affected by the agreement include rejected asylum seekers, illegal travelers, and those without identity papers. Swissinfo stated that Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) said that 13 individuals, including four asylum seekers, were deported back to China under the deal.
Safeguard Defenders said in their report the fate of these 13 individuals is not known.
“The MPS report on these individuals are not made public, so who they were, what happened to them once they were returned to China, and what steps, if any, the Swiss side took to ensure their safety is also not known,” the rights group said.
In its report Safeguard Defenders confirmed the deal gave Chinese agents the right to operate freely in Switzerland with no supervision, adding there was no way to guarantee these agents did not enter or operate in other parts of the European Union due to visa-free travel.
The rights group pointed out that this was all done with full knowledge that such agents use threats against their targets, or their family members back in China, to get individuals to agree to return.
The Safeguard Defenders’ report added that the Swiss government was covering the costs of the Chinese agents in their country.
“That is, Swiss taxpayers are paying for Chinese police agents to secretly enter Switzerland and conduct unsupervised operations against Chinese people inside their country,” Safeguard Defenders said.
The report by Safeguard Defenders outlined efforts made by Swiss officials to conceal the deal’s true substance once it was uncovered. It pointed out that after NZZ am Sonntag broke the story, SEM and Cabinet Minister in charge Mario Gattiker said the deal had not been made public because it was an “administrative agreement.”
Another government spokesperson added the deal was not out of the ordinary and that Switzerland has such readmission agreements with 60 other countries. Two of those deals, with China and India, were deemed as just being “technical” and so were not required to be made public, the spokesperson said.
But Safeguard Defenders said details of the agreement with India had been made public, forcing another official statement from saying the China deal didn’t need to be made public.
The rights group then compared the deal with similar agreements between Switzerland and Sweden, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and India.
“As soon as we did so, it was immediately apparent why the Swiss side had wanted to keep it secret,” Safeguard Defenders said.
“All the other agreements were concluded with the other party’s immigration department or equivalent. For example, the India deal is with the Foreign Ministry subsection for consular, visa and passport matters,” it said.
“In China’s case, it was with China’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS). While the ministry is in charge of immigration, it is also the nation’s police agency, in charge of policing, national security, and with dedicated branches dealing with espionage and counterintelligence. It is also a body implicated in widespread, systematic, and wide-ranging human rights abuses,” Safeguard Defenders said.
The rights group said that the majority of the other agreements that Switzerland had with other countries included wide-ranging text referencing the limitations of the deal as regards international legal rights protections. This included the status of refugees and that the pact does not relate to any cases which could be considered an extradition process.
Safeguard Defenders said that in other deals, related paperwork is made public, often even the forms used to request information help about the people whose nationality they are trying to ascertain. The agreements are also reciprocal where this is not the case with China, the rights group pointed out.
“The key purpose of the deal is to allow agents of China’s MPS — an agency accused of crimes against humanity — free access in Switzerland, for unsupervised operations across the country,” Safeguard Defenders said.
“Switzerland agreed to keep the identity of visiting agents secret. Agents are selected by China, and Switzerland has no part in the selection. China thus selects any member of the MPS to be sent to Switzerland, and it most certainly aren’t any immigration officers being sent,” the rights group said, adding: “Not a single agreement with any other country or region reviewed has this kind of arrangement.”