Illegal immigration: an issue for Arizona or Texas, right? The presence of ‘aliens’—the dehumanizing term is another discussion—in the United States is a ubiquitous news item, especially with Arizona’s rights-stripping senate bill 1070 immigration law. Though our current government has avoided the Draconian approach of the Grand Canyon state, the Conservatives have nonetheless adopted a similar mandate: get illegal immigrants out.
It’s sometimes difficult to argue against because despite the emotional and economic effects of deporting illegal immigrants, the laws are fairly clear. It gets murky, however, when refugee status enters the picture.
In Switzerland, deportation has become a science. Illegals, as they call them, are outed in such routine manners as a traffic stop. After a short stint in regular prison, they are sent to what amounts to a processing facility for the soon-to-be departed. This is the setting for Vol Spécial, a documentary with enough emotional trauma to fell even the most thick-skinned among us. Director Fernand Melgar introduces us to rejected asylum-seekers: Jeton, a Roma whose ethnicity makes him a target in Kosovo; Geordry, the son of an assassinated Cameroonian opposition leader; and Alain, a unionist who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
These men fear for their lives back in their native countries, yet they will all be deported and left to their own devices.
Before they are sent packing, they await the decision of their appeals in a comfortable facility near Geneva. The facility’s cheerful name, Frambois, is a fitting description: it seems sweet and enjoyable but, on closer inspection, is not what it sounds like. The men are given as much food as they request, access to a games room and organized sports, and seem to have genuine friendships with their keepers.
Everyday activities at Frambois seem joyful, but everyone will be locked in their cells by 9 p.m. They will have their dignity damaged by regular strip and cavity searches, and will only see their families in the wisps that are visitation hours.
While the guards show affection for their wards, the lawmakers who make intermittent appearances have a cold detachment that is a much closer fit for the endgame. The most common exchange in the film is of a refugee explaining their inability to return home to their caseworker, who responds with a platitude about previous inmates who returned to, for example, Kosovo without persecution.
Watching a man struggle to explain the danger he faces in returning, not to mention the pain of leaving his family, and be told that he should be happy to leave a free man and has no need to worry is, to be blunt, horrifying.
Almost every refugee in the film is offered a ‘regular flight’ home: the chance to board a plane without handcuffs or police escort, and return to their country indistinguishable from his fellow passengers. Without fail, all refuse this option. They seem incapable of abandoning their families and Switzerland which, for some, has been their home for decades. This has particular significance due to what looms in the future: the ‘special flight’ gives the film its name. A chartered flight in which the men spend hours chained to their seat—in diapers, no less—waiting for the plane’s circuitous route to find its way to their country. No other European country takes these types of restrictive measures in their deportation. For the men who’ve spent the previous months or years at Frambois, however, it’s just the final blow in their systematic degradation by the state.
Everyone can recognize the ugliness of deportation, but Vol Spécial shows an unseen side, glossed over with placations, in a country that receives little attention for its practices. How much responsibility a state has in ensuring those denied asylum aren’t returned to their death is a crucial question today.
On Alain’s return to the DRC, he was robbed of his luggage and money by police forces, and lives in poverty with no ability to contact his daughter, who remains in Switzerland. Geordry suffered a serious knee injury from being tied too tightly during his special flight. This practice of ignoring human rights gives a sort of credence to the term ‘alien.’ Vol Spécial strives to balance the scales.
Vol Spécial is playing Monday, Jan. 30 at 7 p.m. in H-110. For more information, go to www.cinemapolitica.org.