In Context

Switzerland has one of the highest rates of immigration in the world, with over 20 percent of the country's population (approximately 7 million people) claiming a foreign nationality. The country also has notoriously tight naturalization laws; being born in Switzerland does not automatically grant a person Swiss citizenship.

In 2012, Switzerland received 25,900 applications for political asylum, placing it in the number six spot for countries receiving asylum seekers. Every foreigner has the right to apply for asylum, but fewer than 12 percent of applicants are accepted.

Special Flight tells the story of the other 88 percent (as well as undocumented migrants who never asked for asylum), all of whom are swept into one of the country's detention centers. Frambois, established in 2004, is recognized 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.

Detention Infrastructure in Switzerland

Switzerland is composed of 26 states--also known as cantons--each with its own constitution and freedom to interpret and enforce federal law.

Although some cantons have dedicated migrant detention facilities, others arrange to send migrants to neighboring cantons and have joint agreements with shared facilities. For example, the cantons of Vaud and Neuchâtel pay to use the canton of Geneva's Frambois facility, which is featured in the film. Short-term periods of detention are often carried out in police facilities, while longer periods are carried out in cantons with facilities like Frambois.

While there are no federal statistics on the number of detention centers and cells in Switzerland, the Global Detention Project reports that there are 32 facilities in use as immigration-related detention sites. These sites included transit zone (airport) facilities, semi-secure centers for asylum seekers, dedicated immigration facilities, police stations and prisons with separate sections for migrants awaiting deportation.

Separate facilities are reportedly used to detain women, though Geneva's Frambois facility is exclusively male, as are the majority of facilities in Geneva, Vaud and Neuchâtel. The Global Detention Project reports that this is due to gender segregation requirements limiting facilities' capacity. Minors under the age of 15 are not subject to detention.

Detention Policy in Switzerland

The Swiss Federal Office for Migration (FOM) coordinates all matters related to asylum seekers in Switzerland, which includes organizing the controversial "special flights" that are arranged when applicants who are denied asylum or visas refuse to leave the country voluntarily. The men who are filmed in Special Flight are all asylum seekers or undocumented immigrants who were detained after their applications were denied. There is no pattern to which immigrants are targeted, though Switzerland has signed agreements with certain countries regarding immigration policy. For example, in February 2011, Switzerland signed an agreement with Nigeria under which it forcibly repatriates all Nigerians living in the country illegally. In 2010, nearly 2,000 Nigerian citizens applied for asylum in Switzerland, accounting for 13 percent of all asylum requests.

In order to receive asylum, an applicant must register in person at one of the FOM's four reception and procedure centers, provide proof of identity to Swiss authorities and prove a legitimate fear of persecution in his or her home country. As stated in the Swiss Asylum Act, the FOM examines each application and determines whether or not the applicant fulfills the requirements for refugee status, which includes whether or not it is safe for the applicant to repatriate. If a decision cannot be made about an asylum application within 90 days, the applicant is transferred from the reception center to an assigned canton, and it is the job of the cantonal authorities to keep the applicant housed and fed while the applicant awaits a decision. According to the Global Detention Project, the maximum period foreign nationals can be detained while awaiting notice is 18 months (though at the time Special Flight was being filmed, the maximum period was 24 months) and for minors between the ages of 15 and 18, the maximum period is six months. An applicant who is rejected is required to leave Switzerland. If a rejected applicant then refuses to leave, he or she is removed under supervision on a "special flight." According to the FOM, over half of asylum seekers who do not fulfill requirements to remain in Switzerland leave unsupervised.

The FOM deals only with asylum seekers, which means the cantons are left to handle the status and deportation of all other foreign nationals who do not have proper paperwork. The deadlines for leaving the country vary depending on the canton. To encourage voluntary departures by asylum seekers, cantons sometimes offer repatriation allowances to encourage foreigners to return to their home countries.

In June 2013, the Swiss people are scheduled to vote on several revisions to Swiss asylum policy and law that were made effective by the country's parliament in September 2012. The revisions are an attempt to reduce the number of asylum requests (up to 22,551 applications in 2011--40,677 underwent the official asylum procedure by the end of 2011).

If the Swiss vote against these changes, they will only remain in effect until September 2013. If not, they will remain in effect until September 2015.

If the revisions are approved, Switzerland will no longer grant refugee status to conscientious objectors and army deserters and will no longer permit asylum seekers to fill out applications at Swiss embassies abroad. The law will also allow for the construction of new centers dedicated solely to uncooperative asylum seekers already inside Switzerland. Federal authorities will be permitted to house asylum seekers for up to three years without cantonal permission.

The controversial revisions are opposed by the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party, as well as by several human-rights groups, while the right-wing Swiss People's Party is in full support of the changes.

» "Swiss to Vote on Deporting Criminals." PBS NewsHour, November 16, 2010.
» Federal Office for Migration. "Foreigners and Asylum Seekers in Switzerland."
» Fleiner-Gerster, Thomas. "The Current Situation of Federalism in Switzerland." Revista d'Estudis Autonòmics i Federals, October 2009.
» Global Detention Project. "Switzerland Detention Profile."
» Bradley, Simon. "Paying Undesirables to Leave Switzerland.", April 26, 2012
» Federal Office for Migration. "Foreigners and Asylum Seekers in Switzerland."
» Global Detention Project. "Switzerland Detention Profile."
» Jorio, Luigi. "Swiss Wrestle with Expelling Undesirables.", May 10, 2012
» Keiser, Andreas. "Switzerland and Nigeria to Cooperate on Migration.", February 14, 2011