In the discussions that followed the screenings of The Fortress, my 2008 film about asylum seekers in Switzerland, it struck me that the Swiss public was largely unaware of how the continual hardening of the laws on asylum and foreigners affects the lives of innocent human beings. I believe Swiss citizens no longer know why they vote. The populism that the UDC (a conservative political party in Switzerland) uses in its campaigns blinds voters and stirs up xenophobia. At screenings of the film in schools, I learned that the term “asylum applicant” was, for a majority of teenagers, synonymous with “offender.” So confining asylum applicants in order to deport them seemed normal. When I realized that, I considered it urgent to make a film about the reality of administrative detention and deportation.
One hundred fifty thousand paperless migrants live in Switzerland. The vast majority of them work, pay taxes and contribute to our country’s social insurance programs. They look after our elderly, care for our children and clean our homes and hospitals. Without them, many hotels and construction sites would have to shut down for lack of cheap labor. Both unsuccessful asylum seekers and paperless migrants 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. Or, the height of absurdity, they may be released, only to be arrested again a few months later.
I realized that I needed to continue reflecting on the work I had initiated at the Vallorbe reception center, where I filmed The Fortress; I needed to go deeper below the surface to close the loop and attempt to understand better this swinging pendulum between hope and despair that characterizes the lives of so many migrants.
While shooting The Fortress, I befriended Fahad, a young Iraqi translator who took refuge in Switzerland after receiving death threats in his home country. Immediately after his asylum request was denied, he was arrested in order to be deported. Visiting him in Frambois, I discovered the most profound human anguish that I have witnessed in this country. Fahad told me of his companions in misfortune: fathers torn from their children, illegal workers worn out by years of hard labor and young men on the verge of suicide, broken by their search for a better life. All were treated like criminals, though their only offense was not having Swiss residence permits. Some were locked up for months, although there was no re-admittance agreement with their countries of origin. They were at the mercy of arbitrary local immigration services.
Fahad’s brutal deportation by “special flight” a few months later shocked me. Six Zurich policemen turned up in his cell in the middle of the night, chained him up and took him away. He bore the physical and psychological marks of manhandling and humiliation for a long time afterward.
I contacted the politicians representing the area that includes Frambois. After lengthy discussions, I gained their trust. All agreed that The Fortress had opened a positive public debate, and they considered it necessary to continue this work on the issue of asylum and migration. I got permission from them and from the Frambois management to film without restriction not only life at Frambois, but also the work of judicial bodies and police officers involved with the center.
The director of Frambois, Jean-Michel Claude, encouraged his team to participate in this project. He even defended it before his superiors. Prison wardens are often perceived in a bad light, whereas he believes they perform important social work in a situation that is very difficult to handle. This film was an opportunity to showcase their work. As for Frambois staff members, the objective approach I took toward the institution in The Fortress convinced them to appear in this film.
Before the shoot, I spent a lot of time with Frambois inmates. Gradually, I gained their trust and they started confiding in me. Almost all of them agreed to participate in the film. They knew that it was not going to change their personal situations, but it was a way for them to make themselves heard and to let viewers witness a situation that seemed unfair to them.
We spent several months with the inmates and knew their histories, their families and their fears. We were present to shoot when the police came to get them at Frambois to put them aboard special flights, but we didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. The expressions on the prisoners’ faces as they were led away haunt me to this day.
In Switzerland, detention is handled by the cantons (similar to the states in the United States), but the organization of special flights is the responsibility of the Federal Office for Migration (FOM). I requested that body’s permission to shoot in the airport lobby, where the deportees were chained up before being boarded. At first, I received no response. After repeated requests, the FOM press service told me about a federal order that prohibited filming a person in a humiliating or degrading situation. In view of the fact that the deportees had given me permission to film them, I asked for a copy of this order. I am still waiting for it.
After each man’s departure by special flight, we called to see how his journey had gone. Their testimony was overwhelming. Not only did they feel that Switzerland had thrown them out as if they were trash, but they also suffered the physical and psychological consequences of having been chained up. On arrival, some were arrested and even had their money stolen by the police in their countries, sometimes under the noses of Swiss representatives. So we decided to continue seeing them in their home countries and filming their lives after deportation. These portraits are presented in my new documentary, The World Is Like That, in spring 2013 on European television and currently online.
—Fernand Melgar, Director/Producer