Switzerland is voting in a referendum on whether to throw out a government move to tighten the country's asylum law amid an influx of refugees.

The government made controversial changes to the asylum law last year as applications soared to their highest level in over a decade, including removing military desertion from a list of valid grounds for seeking asylum in Switzerland.

Critics of the changes gathered the 60,000 signatures needed to put the issue to a popular vote, but opinion polls suggest that their bid is likely to fail. The most recent poll in late May showed 57 percent of Swiss in favour of the tougher asylum rules.

Military desertion had been the grounds for asylum most frequently cited by Eritreans, who accounted for most applications to Switzerland last year. Eritrea imposes unlimited military service, with low wages, on all able-bodied men and women.

The revision, which took effect last September, also removed the possibility - which had been unique in Europe - to apply for asylum from Swiss embassies instead of travelling to Switzerland to do so. Opponents have described the change as  "inhumane".

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga insisted the changes were needed and stressed that they have significantly speeded up the application process.

"Leaving people and their families for so long wallowing in uncertainty is unacceptable," she said recently.

Switzerland currently counts 48,000 people in the process of seeking asylum, including 28,631 who arrived in 2012.

The surge, attributed in part to the Arab Spring uprisings, marks the highest number since the Balkans war in 1999, when nearly 48,000 people sought refuge in the country.

Source: Agencies