Muslim asylum-seekers and conversion: A v Switzerland

The ECtHR has concluded that an asylum-seeker who has converted to Christianity will not necessarily face persecution if returned to Iran.

In A v Switzerland [2017] ECHR (no. 60342/16), the applicant, an Iranian, entered Switzerland in 2009 and immediately claimed asylum. He brought three sets of asylum proceedings, all without success. In his second application, he submitted at a hearing that he would be at risk if returned to Iran because he had converted from Islam to Christianity. The authorities doubted, however, that his conversion was genuine and rejected his application. In 2014 the Federal Administrative Court dismissed his appeal: it considered that Christian converts would only face a risk of ill-treatment on return to Iran if they were particularly exposed in the public arena on account of their Christian faith and could be perceived as a threat by the Iranian authorities – but Mr A was an ordinary member of a Christian group and the authorities would, most likely, be unaware of his conversion. In 2016, his application was again rejected, essentially on the same grounds.

Relying on Article 2 (right to life) and Article 3 (prohibition of torture and of inhuman or degrading treatment), he alleged that his conversion to Christianity put him at a real risk of being killed or ill-treated if he were to be deported to Iran.

The Court considered that the general human rights situation in Iran did not, per se, prevent the deportation of an Iranian national and the issue was whether A’s conversion to Christianity while in Switzerland meant that he would face a real risk of treatment contrary to Articles 2 and 3 if he were deported to Iran [40]. His conversion had been examined by the Swiss asylum authorities, who questioned him in person, and by the Federal Administrative Court in the second set of asylum proceedings. It was subjected to another assessment at two levels of jurisdiction in the set of proceedings leading to the present application [41].

The Swiss authorities in the present case had not based their conclusions on a rejection of Mr A’s conversion as not being credible; they considered that Christian converts would only face a real risk of ill-treatment upon return to Iran if they manifested their faith in a manner that would lead to them being perceived as a threat to the Iranian authorities. That required a certain level of public exposure which was not the case for Mr A. They considered that the Iranian authorities would take into account the fact that Iranian citizens sometimes attempted to rely on conversion to Christianity abroad in order to obtain refugee status and would take such that into account, resulting in Mr A not facing a real risk of ill-treatment upon his or her return [43].

The Court agreed with the Swiss Government that the situation of Christian converts in Iran required a nuanced approach and that converts who had not come to the attention of the authorities, including for reasons other than their conversion, and who practised their faith discreetly did not face a real risk of ill-treatment upon return [44]. Mr A had been examined in person by the domestic authorities about his conversion to Christianity at two levels of jurisdiction in two sets of proceedings and there were no indications that those proceedings had been flawed or inadequate [45]. In the circumstances, Mr A’s deportation to Iran would not give rise to a violation of Articles 2 and 3 [46].

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Muslim asylum-seekers and conversion: A v Switzerland" in Law & Religion UK, 23 December 2017, http://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2017/12/23/muslim-asylum-seekers-and-conversion-a-v-switzerland/

2 thoughts on “Muslim asylum-seekers and conversion: A v Switzerland

  1. I’d have thought that it could be said of almost every applicant for asylum on the grounds of a well-founded fear of persecution, that he “will not necessarily face persecution”. I’d consider the *possibility* of persecution sufficient founding for a fear of it. It seems strange to rule that a fear of persecution is ill-founded, i.e. paranoid or bogus, because there is merely a possibility of persecution, not an absolute certainty, he test the ECtHR seems to have applied in this case.

  2. I have received the following comment from an Iranian who is closely involved in human rights issues:

    The fact is that faith can be kept private, but this is an individual decision not the state’s. No individual, group or government can ask people to do this as it is against the international conventions they are signatory to, namely ICCPR and its Article 18 which states:

    (18.1) Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching. (18.2) No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice. (18.3) Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law* and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others…
    The law is very clear about where this manifestation may or may not be restricted. The Human Rights Committee has made extensive comments on this in its General Comment No. 22:

    The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (which includes the freedom to hold beliefs) in article 18.1 is far-reaching and profound; it encompasses freedom of thought on all matters, personal conviction and the commitment to religion or belief, whether manifested individually or in community with others. The Committee draws the attention of States parties to the fact that the freedom of thought and the freedom of conscience are protected equally with the freedom of religion and belief. The fundamental character of these freedoms is also reflected in the fact that this provision cannot be derogated from, even in time of public emergency, as stated in article 4.2 of the Covenant.

    So I dare to say, asking/forcing individuals to keep their beliefs private means depriving them of their full rights as granted in this convention, and therefore illegal.

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