Switzerland gave Chinese security agents free run inside its borders and the rest of Europe for five years as part of a secretive immigration agreement between the two countries, according to human rights watchdog Safeguard Defenders.
While the agreement officially expired this week, Safeguard Defenders warned that it was up for renewal in a report released on Thursday.
The deal allows Chinese officials to visit Switzerland for up to two weeks to interview and remove nationals who have been found to be residing illegally in the European country and take them back to China.
While Switzerland maintains 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 China’s Ministry of Public Security as opposed to immigration officials, according to Safeguard Defenders.
These officials are allowed access to investigate “irregular immigration” as opposed to “illegal immigration” as detailed in agreements with the countries, the organisation said.
“In China, the Ministry of Public Security is the paramount structure of power second only to the Communist Party itself, and it is through the MPS that the Party wields its authority over perceived threats,” said Michael Caster, senior adviser at Safeguard Defenders.
“The real question is why would Switzerland agree to any bilateral partnership with a state agency known for widespread and systematic human rights abuses, including torture, especially when that partnership is about the surveillance, custody, and repatriation of individuals at risk of abuse,” he said.
The deal was signed in 2015 but was not made public, so even Swiss parliamentarians on the country’s Foreign Affairs Committee were unaware of it, according to Swiss news outlet ZZ am Sonntag, which first broke the story in August.
MPs were reportedly not notified because the agreement was considered 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, but clicking on the link reveals that no document has been uploaded.
The SEM acknowledged the existence of the agreement to Al Jazeera in a response to written questions, and said it was neither unlisted nor confidential. “The full text has always been transmitted upon request,” spokesman Lukas Rieder said.
Rieder said Swiss migration authorities decide, together with the cantons, which people will be presented to any visiting delegation, and then organise the mission.
The duration of the stay depends on the number of interviews, which take place at the offices of the SEM, and the visiting delegation has no influence over the amount of time they spend in Switzerland, it said.
“Chinese authorities do not receive any information on persons at risk or persecuted,” Rieder said, stressing that the only information provided was for identification purposes. “No sensitive data or information is provided which could endanger the persons concerned” or their relatives.
He added that while a continuation of the agreement was “in Switzerland’s interest” there was “no urgency” for the renewal.