Neutral Switzerland, home to humanitarian agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, voted by a big majority yesterday to make it harder for asylum-seekers to gain entry to the rich Alpine state.

Despite warnings of damage to the country's humanitarian reputation, some 68 per cent of voters said "yes" in referendums on changes to Swiss asylum rules to make them among the West's toughest, and on laws limiting access for non-European job-seekers.

"Obviously we are disappointed, but we knew it would be difficult," said Thomas Christen, secretary-general of the Swiss Socialist Party, one of the few parties to oppose the changes.

"Switzerland has one of the hardest asylum laws in Europe and that does not help our reputation," he said.

But voters accepted the arguments of right-wing Justice Minister Christoph Blocher that the new regulations, featuring a requirement that all asylum-seekers have a passport, were necessary to fight alleged abuse.

Announcing that the laws had won 68 per cent backing, Mr Blocher's ministry said in a statement:

"The sovereign people (has decided)... to preserve the humanitarian traditions of Switzerland and fight resolutely against abuse." The measures have already been passed by both Parliament and the government, but opponents raised enough signatures to force a national vote.

It is the latest move by an industrial power - Britain is among others - to raise barriers to asylum as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), which had long expressed concerns about toughening of the asylum code, said in a statement that it regretted that Switzerland had backed "restrictive" new asylum laws.

Spokesman William Spindler said the agency, which says the passport requirement could keep out genuine refugees, would be watching to ensure that treatment of asylum-seekers stayed in line with international rules.

The new law will also deny financial assistance to failed asylum-seekers and threatens them with longer periods of detention if they refuse to leave.

Voters were also being asked to approve a clearer division between job seekers from the European Union, and non-EU Switzerland's allies within the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), and those from outside the two blocs.

The latter will be accepted only if they have special skills - something which critics says flies in the face of economic reality because Switzerland, like other advanced countries, also needs unqualified labour.

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