How does it feel to be an African asylum seeker in Europe

“Bon voyage” (“Have a nice trip”), a Swiss animated short movie by Fabio Friedli, seeks to convey how it feels to be an African asylum seeker in Switzerland, and it does so by capturing the experience in the simplest manner, with ballpoint pen and paper. Reactions to the movie show how divided the Swiss are about immigration and asylum laws, reflecting more general trends in Europe. However, although having won innumerable awards across Europe and marked a revival of the political film in Switzerland, the film’s critique about the Swiss asylum system is very subtle—maybe too subtle to contribute to meaningful change in thinking about asylum issues in Europe. 

The film starts with stick figures climbing a pick-up truck and expressing joy and excitement for the journey. When they arrive at the coast, they board a boat to Europe. On their way, joy turns into despair, as the travelers have to overcome many challenges—an overcrowded bus, a sinking boat, the arrogance of the smugglers who don’t care about the lives they take into their hands, cluelessness about the exact destination, and lastly the defense systems of the “Fortress Europe”. Many migrants die on the way, and only the hero of the story makes it, finally sitting in front of three immigration officers in Switzerland. This is the moment in which the animated film suddenly turns into a live action film. But here the actual adventure just begins, as the officers don’t seem to care about the refugee’s story and draw cartoons while listening to the refugee’s testimony—the very cartoon we just saw, imagining African migrants as stick figures without motive and history that die like flies.

The film was made at a time when Switzerland (and Europe more generally) had to deal with an increase in asylum seekers, rising by 45% from 2010 to 2011 to 22,551, which was largely attributed to the upheavals in North Africa and an operational migration route from Tunisia and Lybia to southern Italy. Asylum law is an issue exploited by the conservative Swiss people’s party (SVP), and the topic provokes strong emotional reactions, as immigrants and asylum seekers are thought to limit domestic employment opportunities and fundamentally change Swiss culture. In a previous project, Homeland (video below), Fabio Friedli and colleagues captured the angst over cultural change, which was most strongly expressed during the debate about the construction of minarets in Switzerland, which culminated in a referendum in 2009. This is why, since 2006, Switzerland has restricted immigration and asylum law greatly.

Today, Switzerland is one of the European countries with the most restricted asylum regulations and the longest wait times for asylum petitions, turning the Swiss asylum process into a “kafkaesque” experience.

“Bon voyage” works with those narratives with the greatest shock factor—the fatal journey across the Mediterranean Sea and an African asylum seeker in front of Swiss officers, and thus speaks to the dominant image of asylum seekers in the European media and public. Most irregular migrants and asylum seekers actually arrive via land in Europe (from Russia and the Balkans), and many come from the Near East rather than Africa. But the film does not clarify—it plays with existing stereotypes, in a manner that is too subtle to provoke a change in attitude among Europeans towards migrants. Most of the reactions to the film on media websites convey a deep racism and anxiety about immigrants’ danger to Swiss culture and the job market. These people don’t realize that contrary to their fears of waves of asylum seekers from Africa, only few arrive—in the film, only the hero of the story makes it. It’s a tragic hero, as in current European public discourse one is one too many.

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9 thoughts on “How does it feel to be an African asylum seeker in Europe

  1. The SVP is not a conservative party, it’s a classic right-wing populist party with some factions connected to the extreme right. Its economic policies are neoliberal, its social policies reactionary at best. Unabashed racism towards asylum seekers is part of their core message, and they have often caused controversy in Switzerland with their poster campaigns that portrayed asylum seekers as black sheep (implying they are, as a rule, criminals and “other” in contrast to swiss white sheep) or as a mass of threatening looking shoes trampling over the swiss flag. cf. the pictures:

    (the conservative party is called Christliche Volkspartei – CVP – Christian People’s Party)

    Also, I find the movie’s critique too subtle. So subtle, in fact, that 90 per cent of it are dedicated to depicting the very cliché of faceless migrants on overcrowded vehicles trying to get into fortress europe as an undistinguishable mass. The civil servants don’t listen to the guy’s story – he’s mute. So what does this fim to correct the cliché and where is the actual critique of the Swiss system? It seems the only problem are racist civil servants. That’s not a systemic critique.

    • Thanks so much for your clarifications, Bernardo, and your sharpening of the critique of the film! You’re absolutely right, the critique of the Swiss system is very weak in the film, and that’s why I argue it won’t do much to influence the attitude towards migrants. Thanks for reading!

  2. The SVP is really the same as any fanatical extremist Islamist party, isn’t it? Everyone is entitled to their own opinions of course, but these types which divide citizens across racial (or ethnic) lines should be firmly discouraged and legislated against.

    • The SVP has no religious overtones other than “Islam is not part of our culture”, which, to me, is just very thinly disguised racism. They were also the ones behind the infamous Swiss initiative to ban the building of mosques. Being no expert on Islamist political parties, I’d be weary of such comparisons. There is, however, a fascinating ongoing research project that compares the right wing populism of Christoph Blocher, former leader of the SVP, with Zuma’s left wing populism.

  3. I think it’s important to clarify that not all immigrants are asylum seekers or refugees. I don’t see where the filmmakers have explicitly stated the film is focused on asylum seekers or refugees – but immigration from Africa to Europe. I think this is an important notation to make to so that immigration as a whole becomes the discussion rather than just asylum seekers or refugees (all equally important).

    Thanks for sharing.

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