Special Flight is a dramatic account of the plight of undocumented foreigners at the Frambois detention center in Geneva, Switzerland, and of the wardens who struggle to reconcile humane values with the harsh realities of a strict deportation system. The 25 male inmates at the center are among the thousands of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants imprisoned without charge or trial and facing deportation to their native countries, where they fear repression or even death.
While making his award-winning 2008 film, The Fortress, a portrait of a government institution that hosts incoming asylum seekers, Fernand Melgar gained unprecedented access to the Frambois center for immigrants being deported. He returned to the facility for nine months to make Special Flight, keeping his camera tightly focused on a handful of detainees, guards and administrators. Behind the prison doors, tensions build day by day. On one side are wardens who are genuinely kind and compassionate; on the other are inmates who are at the end of their journeys: Should they lose their appeals and resist deportation, they will be forced onto “special flights,” a Swiss euphemism for plane rides during which deportees are chained to their seats under harsh conditions.
Special Flight has its national broadcast premiere on Monday, July 1, 2013 at 10 p.m. (check local listings) as part of the 26th season of the award-winning PBS series POV (Point of View). American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV was recently honored with a 25-year retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and a MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.
As Melgar showed in The Fortress, Switzerland is strict about granting asylum to foreigners: Less than 12 percent of applicants are accepted. Special Flight tells the story of the rest, who are swept into one of the country’s 28 detention centers. Frambois, established in 2004, has been criticized for its high cost and relative comfort, yet its deportation rate, 86 percent, is the highest in the country. Many of the “paperless” immigrants and asylum seekers detained there have lived in Switzerland for years–20 years in the case of Ragip, a Kosovar man featured in the film–and have jobs and families. They may be locked up for as long as 18 months before being deported. A staff member sympathizes, saying, “It’s really difficult to leave this country. I understand you.”
So begins the disconnect between the Frambois wardens, with their dedication to procedure and humane treatment of their charges, and the prison’s frightened and angry inmates. Certainly, conditions at Frambois are good. The men are well-fed, have plenty of games, sports, music and television to occupy them and may leave their cells for 11 hours a day. They get paid nominally for their work (although Serge, a Congolese asylum seeker later deported via special flight, feels that food and lodging are payment enough). They are able to receive visitors without a window separating them and may hug, kiss and cry with their wives and children. The close-knit staff, anxious to keep the inmates comfortable and calm, treats them with sincere compassion.
Behind these amenities, however, an inexorable process grinds on. As final appeals are exhausted, the wardens strive to keep up the prisoners’ spirits, knowing most will lose. “Everything will go well,” Frambois director Jean-Michel Claude tells a new inmate, “but in the end, you’ll all leave.”
The men are given two choices if their appeals fail. They can willingly get on planes to their native countries and arrive free and unannounced. If they refuse to board, they will return to the prison and later be handcuffed, helmeted, tied to chairs and forcibly loaded onto planes for special flights that can last as long as 40 hours, then handed over to local police upon landing. Many refuse the first choice, to the puzzlement of their jailers. Jeton, a Roma from Kosovo who grew up in Europe and spent several years in Switzerland, was planning his wedding when he was picked up on the motorway. He is convinced he will be killed in the country he hardly knows anymore, explaining his refusal to go voluntarily by saying, “Better to live a couple more days.”
Things go differently for Congolese prisoner Pitchou. He is fervently praying aloud when a guard sits him down to read an official letter from the government. Pitchou can hardly believe what he is hearing: He is about to be released. “Thank you, oh Lord, thank you!” he exclaims. He tells the other inmates, “Your day will come, too, you understand?” Still incredulous, he even asks a warden, “Are you still cross with me?” and embraces him warmly.
Then the time arrives that so many have known would come, but still dread: Five men will be going home on a special flight. The staff chooses the best time to break the news, and one by one the men are given notice and the required physical checkups, along with the staff’s heartfelt wishes for a better future. Anger has given way to resignation as the inmates quietly submit to the final procedures. They are soon en route to their home countries.
But there is shocking news: 29-year-old Nigerian Joseph Ndukaka Chiakkwa has died at the airport, an event witnessed by Julius and Emanuel, rejected asylum seekers from Frambois also en route to Nigeria. It turns out, according to Swiss media, that “this is not the first tragic ending to an expulsion,” and deportees were being roughly handled, tightly bound to chairs and masked. Some have suffocated or choked. “I couldn’t even lift my hands or turn my back,” Julius attests. “I couldn’t move; I couldn’t walk.” Special flights are suspended until further notice. Frambois’ director, Jean-Michel, clearly shaken, promises “to request and obtain humane treatment of expulsed people, because I’m not proud to be Swiss after these events. I’m not.”
“If it had been a Swiss citizen who died yesterday, all hell would be loose,” one inmate says ruefully. “To deport someone, there is no need to kill them.” “It’s the police that killed the person,” prisoner Wandifa avers. “That’s what the director has just said. Things will change because of this.” Ralph tells his Swiss jailers, “We just tried to find a better future here. Why? Because you came to Africa and destroyed everything, leaving wars behind. So we came here to seek a better life because we’re human beings like you.” One angry detainee asks, “Why do you treat people that way? I implore you! This is not right.”
Special Flight is an intimate and heart-wrenching exposé of the contradictions between Switzerland’s Western ideals and the rule of law that many of its citizens may not fully grasp. It gives audiences of all nationalities an opportunity to gain greater understanding of the people who seek freedom and a better life in a foreign country–and those who must implement the law and turn them away.
“In the discussions that followed screenings of The Fortress, it struck me that the public was largely unaware of how the continual hardening of the laws on asylum and foreigners affects innocent human beings,” says filmmaker Fernand Melgar. “One hundred fifty thousand paperless migrants live in Switzerland. The vast majority of them work and pay taxes. They look after our elderly, care for our children and clean our flats and hospitals. Both unsuccessful asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants live with a sword of Damocles dangling over their heads: They may be arrested at any moment, imprisoned for months or years and deported from Switzerland without any form of trial.
“After obtaining the authorization to film at Frambois, I spent a lot of time with the inmates,” he continues. “Gradually, I gained their trust and they started confiding in me. Feeling rebellious and forgotten by the outside world, almost all of them agreed to participate. They knew that it was not going to change their personal situations, but it was a way for them to be heard.”