Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Monitoring Deportation Flights: Questionable Practices and Moral Dilemmas


Jean-Sébastien Blanc


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Jean-Sébastien Blanc, member of the observers’ team, Swiss Commission for the Prevention of Torture.

charter flights

Forcibly deporting individuals - including those who have not committed any offence except that of breaching immigration law- is a common practice in many countries, notably in Europe. Switzerland is no exception. Since 2012, all so-called “special flights” are monitored by the Swiss Commission for the Prevention of Torture, which is the National Preventive Mechanism established under the Optional protocol to the Convention against torture.

“Special flight” is a euphemism that refers to charter flights organised by the Swiss authorities for individuals who oppose their return and who are deported against their will under police escort (it should be noted that they are always given the choice to travel in less restrictive conditions and that special flights are considered a last resort). The 12 Commission’s members and its team of observers (of which I’ve been part for the last two years) monitor the whole process, from the moment the persons are apprehended (in most cases in a detention facility), the transfer to the airport, the boarding operations, and the flight itself. The Commission cannot oppose any return: its role is to observe the way deportations are carried out, with an emphasis on the use of restrain and the use of force. In this post, I will share some of the findings of the Commission, but also reflect on the challenges of monitoring deportation flights.

Federalism and the mosaic of practices

On the 6th of September 2022, the Commission published its annual report on deportation flights (covering April-December 2021). During this time span, it monitored 33 flights, including 19 under the Dublin regulation and 4 joint flights carried out with several member states of the European Union (Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but is part of the Dublin regulation). In total, 130 persons were deported, including 6 families and 15 children. “Special” flights are coordinated and organized by the State Secretary of Migration, but Switzerland being a federal State, returns are enforced by the 26 cantonal polices, a situation leading to at times great disparity in terms of police practices. Although the Commission found that most returns were conducted respectfully and in accordance with Swiss law and international standards, it also pointed to some problematic practices. Providing a comprehensive account would be too long, and I will therefore focus on a few issues.

Excessive use of restrains, including in front of children

The Commission found that in 62% cases, persons were partially restrained, either handcuffed, tied to a “Cerberus” type belt (a sophisticated waist restraint belt, particularly well named, which can be loosened, allowing individuals to move their hands more freely depending on their behaviour), or fully restrained. In less than half of the 43 transfers monitored (from a variety of locations to the airport), no use of restrain was observed. Furthermore, 2 persons were handcuffed in the back during the transfer to the airport, a practice which should be avoided according to the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. The Commission already recommended in several annual reports to limit the use of restrain to cases of imminent threat to the security of the returnee or a third person, but some cantonal polices use restraint as a standard practice. Furthermore, in 3 instances, the Commission found that children witnessed their parents being restrained. The Commission has criticized this practice in previous reports, asking the authorities to put an end to it. In a particularly chilling case, a pregnant woman was handcuffed while breastfeeding as well as when she was being examined by a doctor. It is the only situation in the report that was considered a degrading and inhumane treatment by the Commission. Given the seriousness of the case, the Commission pursued a sustained dialogue with the concerned authorities to ensure similar practices would be avoided in the future.

Covid tests forcibly carried out

Covid 19 froze deportation flights, but for a short time only. They rapidly resumed and soon arose the question of dealing with persons opposing a test. Fearing that refusing a test might lead to the cancelling of deportation operations (which happened on some occasions) and that the “word might spread” among people expecting a deportation, the government proposed a legal amendment to allow forced testing. The Commission, among other entities, opposed the proposal during the consultation. However, the amendment was approved and forced testing became lawful. The Commission observed 17 forced testing at the airport, whereby the person was forcibly laid on the ground by several police officers while a medical personnel performed the test with a swab. The Commission reiterated its opposition to a practice considered incompatible with medical ethics.

Monitoring: an experience between a rock and a hard place

I have presented some facts and figures from the report and described some of the monitoring powers of the commission. However, behind each figure, there is a human story, often marked by distress and fear. Investing significant government money to deport people against their will may be legal but it is also a particularly ugly reality of our times. Even when police officers do their job with respect and professionalism, the aftertaste at the end of each mission is a bitter one to say the least. I felt shame many times upon return – and asked myself: what is my shame compared to those experiencing deportation?

I often hear the argument that if we stop returning people who are not entitled to asylum, then fortress Switzerland will be besieged and the whole immigration system will collapse. But by monitoring deportation flights, am I not backing an inherently cruel system? By making a questionable practice more humane and respectful, am I not providing it with the legitimacy it is lacking? This is the argument prison abolitionists use against reformists trying to make prisons a better place. I was once on a flight that had gathered public attention and people were protesting against the removal at the airport. Where is my place, I asked, on the plane, or alongside the protesters outside? I haven’t found an answer to that question yet, and for now I continue to monitor “special flights”. But it is important to underline that we have strong evidence that monitoring has a deterrent effect and can prevent abusive practices. Despite of the dilemmas described above, I therefore remain convinced that the presence of independent observers is needed as long as these flights exist.

The views expressed in this blog reflect the author’s opinion only.

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

J. Blanc. (2022) Monitoring Deportation Flights: Questionable Practices and Moral Dilemmas. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2022/10/monitoring-deportation-flights-questionable-practices. Accessed on: 17/04/2024

With the support of