In Secret Deal, Swiss Government Allowed Chinese Agents Free Rein to Repatriate Citizens: NGO

December 10, 2020 Updated: December 13, 2020

A Sino-Swiss agreement shrouded in secrecy has been exposed, revealing that Chinese security agents were allowed to roam Switzerland unsupervised.

Safeguard Defenders, an Asia-focused human rights NGO, published the official English translation of the agreement in a report published on Dec. 9. The five-year “readmission agreement,” which came into effect in December 2015 and expired Dec. 7 this year, set out terms for Chinese agents to travel to Switzerland and conduct interviews of Chinese nationals that the Swiss government were considering to deport.

In general, readmission agreements are a customary part of international law. According to the report, these deals allow governments to communicate with each other about suspected illegal immigrants. Some agreements also include conditions that allow a government to send a representative or agent to accompany its citizens to be deported.

Safeguard Defenders said its analysis revealed that “the agreement with China, which has been kept secret under false pretenses, has little to nothing to do with these regular ‘readmission agreements’, and is of an entirely different character.”

The Sino-Swiss agreement was not publicly known until August this year, when Swiss German-language newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung uncovered it. Officials have since questioned why Swiss authorities chose not to publish the agreement—as the country has signed more than 50 similar deals with other governments and jurisdictions, which are publicly viewable on the Swiss government website.

Agreement

Under the terms of the agreement with China, Chinese agents could spend no more than two weeks in the country after being invited by Swiss authorities to deal with “identification of alleged Chinese citizens with irregular stay in Switzerland.”

The Chinese agents would submit a report to Swiss authorities. Then, Swiss officials would use the report, in consultation with the Chinese embassy, to determine whether the suspected illegal immigrants should be deported.

But Safeguard Defenders pointed out that the agreement “does not stipulate that Switzerland undertake any verification of the information provided by the Chinese agents.”

The NGO also pointed out some other questionable terms in the agreement: Swiss authorities did not have a say over whom China selected as agents to Switzerland, and agreed to keep the agents’ identities secret. Moreover, these Chinese agents did not have to declare their status or that they are in the country in any official capacity.

“Not a single agreement with any other country or region reviewed has this kind of arrangement,” Safeguard Defenders stated.

For instance, the British-Swiss agreement calls for UK officials to be approved by Swiss authorities before they could enter Switzerland, and they must enter in an open, official capacity, according to the report.

Safeguard Defenders also noted an oddity in the Chinese agreement: it was signed with China’s Ministry of Public Security, the agency that oversees the country’s police force. With other countries, it is their immigration department or an equivalent agency that signs readmission agreements.

For example, India had its Consular, Passport, and Visa Division under the country’s Ministry of External Affairs sign its agreement with Switzerland, according to the report.

Furthermore, the Chinese agreement lacked guarantees for the protection of refugees’ legal rights, which are commonly found in other readmission agreements, according to the report.

The Swiss secretariat for migration has defended the agreement, saying it was needed to send back illegal aliens. The Swiss agency also said the agreement was used only once, when 13 individuals from China, including four asylum seekers, were deported in 2016.

Concerns

Safeguard Defenders sounded multiple concerns about the agreement, such as that Chinese agents could be granted regular tourist visas, since their visits could be on unofficial duty. Because such a visa grants the traveler access to other European countries in the Schengen area, the Chinese agents could potentially travel freely in much of Europe.

Another concern was that China’s police signed the agreement, meaning Beijing would “most certainly” not send any ordinary immigration officers, the NGO said.

In 2014, the Chinese regime announced a campaign known as “Operation Fox Hunt” to repatriate fugitives, dissidents, and Chinese officials who’ve fallen out of favor with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The campaign was initiated by the Ministry of Public Security.

To carry out the campaign, the Chinese regime has “engaged in unsanctioned, unilateral, and illegal practices, including coercion, extortion, and intimidation, all targeting these ‘fugitive’ targets and their families in order to compel cooperation or self-repatriation to PRC [People’s Republic of China],” U.S. prosecutors said in regards to a recent criminal case involving eight alleged CCP operatives, who were indicted for attempting to coerce a New Jersey resident to return to China. Five of the eight were arrested in the United States while the remaining three are at-large in China.

In August, the United Nations body, Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, submitted a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, raising concerns that Beijing used “extraterritorial abductions and forced returns” to repatriate Chinese nationals.

“It is believed that as many as 300 Uyghurs have been forcibly returned to China from 16 different countries since 2004,” according to the U.N. report.

Prominent Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong expressed concerns about the Swiss agreement in August after the deal was exposed, saying it had “grave implications” for overseas Chinese dissidents.

“Not to mention that dissidents in exile, #Hongkongers or even #Taiwanese overseas might be covered by the secret deal & extradited to #China’s courts,” Wong wrote on his Twitter account.

Local media reports noted that politicians were urging Swiss authorities not to renew the agreement with China.

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer