EU: Mass deportations by charter flight - enforcement and resistance


“Collective explusion of aliens is prohibited” (4th Protocol (Article 4) to the European Convention on Human Rights)

This article first appeared in Statewatch bulletin in April 2003 (vol 13 no 2)

For all the EU governments’ hard line speeches on their clamp down on asylum, the one thing they have always failed to achieve is their deportation targets. Although the living conditions for asylum seekers in the EU have dramatically decreased over the past decade (detention, dispersal, no social services, racist attacks), their removal after failed applications has been slowed down by several factors. Contrary to common belief, these are not related to the EU government's international obligations under the ECHR.

Firstly, there is the refusal by countries of origin to take back their own and other nationals (this includes in particular the lack of identity documents and the unwillingness by refugees and migrants to disclose their nationality in fear of deportation, as well as stateless refugees); secondly, there is the resistance by refugees and migrants against their deportation as to them it is either death or economic destitution awaiting them (although in most cases deportations are not physically resisted); finally, there are the logistical and financial problems of forcefully deporting thousands of people: it is very expensive, not least due to the fact that for every forced deportation, the government has to pay wages and (return) flight costs for around four security personnel or police officers. Up to now, governments have used scheduled flights because they include landing rights (which are cheaper) and there have allegedly been deals between governments and airlines on taking deportees in return for the waving of carrier sanctions.

To enforce the deportation of the target number (2,500 a month according to the 2002 UK White Paper on immigration, nationality and asylum) individually, the governments would have to pay millions. Another important aspect here is the refusal by most airline companies to carry out deportation flights, since anti-deportation campaigners have started focusing on aviation companies for carrying out deportations. Or as one private security firm responsible for escorting deportations told the UK Houses of Commons Home Affairs committee during an enquiry on deportations: if it was not for British Airways, the number of those deported on scheduled flights would be "virtually nil".

For these reasons, EU governments and think tanks have come up with the plan of chartered deportation flights. It is difficult to pinpoint precise origins, but chartered deportation flights have occurred at least since the 1980's, albeit not regularly. In 1992, when in Hungary 1,200 refugees were round-up, 740 of them were immediately deported on charter flights to Damascus and Hanoi amongst others. The French have used charter trains to Marseille where refugees are then deported by boat to North Africa, a plan which encountered much resistance in 1993, when then interior minister Charles Pasqua ordered the French state railway company SNCF to conduct a feasibility study. Since then however, trains have again been used for deportations to France's coast. More recently, charter deportations have been stepped up in the EU in a drive to enforce Member States' deportation targets, and they have started to occur in cooperation between EU member states, notably France, Germany, the Netherlands and Britain. The test case for chartered deportation flights was undoubtedly Kosovo. The UK government alone has deported over 4,000 people to Kosovo on charter flights over the past few years, and on 4 March this year, immigration minister Beverley Hughes confirmed at an inquiry into asylum and immigration removals that "Yes, we actually do a lot of charter flights...there have been weekly flights out to Kosovo..." And in fact, she "was very impressed" with the way the security firm dealt with the escort, so impressed she stayed "and watched the flight go".

But although most politicians view 'removals' purely in terms of a logistical problem, in reality, deportations are a serious human rights concern and resistance to them is strong. Deaths during deportation occur almost every year and eye witnesses report time and again that police and security officers violently abuse deportees. The use of sedatives and straightjackets, gagging, shackles and physical force are a regular occurrence on deportation flights. Only at the beginning of this year, another two people died on Air France flights after border guards used force to 'calm them down': the 52-year-old Argentinean Ricardo Barrientos and the 24-year-old Somali Mariame Getu Hagos, died during deportations on Air France flights on 30 December 2002 and 16 January 2003 respectively. At least 11 more such deaths have occurred in the past two years in Belgium, France, the UK, Austria, Switzerland and Germany. The common cause of death during deportation is 'positional asphyxia', in other words, people suffocate to death whilst they are being held down (see Statewatch bulletin vol 11 no 3/4). Since the introduction of charter flights, human rights organisations have become particularly concerned because abuse can now go unchecked, which is why in France, the Red Cross is now allowed to send a representative along to witness charter deportations, together with around 90 security personnel and police.

Charter deportation in EU policy

Joint charter deportations were already discussed during the Schengen process, driven by Germany. When EU governments were forced to make public the Schengen acquis in late 1996 after sustained pressure from their parliaments, not only the extent of Germany's driving force behind the restrictive development of asylum and immigration law became clear, but the German report on the Schengen 'progress' also emphasised that "repatriation through joint charter flight by Germany, France and the Netherlands has been successful and should be expanded."

Switzerland endorsed the practice of joint charter flights in 1993 through a Swiss-German readmission agreement which included a clause on joint quotas for deportation by charter flights, particularly to Kosovo. Switzerland again reinforced its deportation cooperation with Germany in December 1997, when it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Germany which clearly foresees "common repatriation contingents" of third country nationals and the "use of common charter flights". In 1999, the Belgian interior minister Luc van den Bossche announced that as a result of the death of Samira Adamu during a deportation flight, the government would now use charter flights (small business planes) to deport asylums seekers who "repeatedly use violence in order to prevent deportation". He said that Germany and France had shown interest (chartered flights have, of course, been discussed between interior minister much earlier in the Schengen process) and that the first flight was scheduled for February the same year. However, this plan was soon abandoned after protests against the company. Indeed, the string of deaths during deportations has led to the issue being discussed at EU level since 1998. It was again the German government which highlighted the 'problem' of lack of restraint powers and conflicting jurisdictions, leading to a draft Joint Action calling on EU member states to give mutual assistance in transit situations during deportation by air (see Statewatch bulletin vol 9 no 3/4). The proposed measures include the introduction of group deportations by charter flight.

The latest drive for a common expulsion policy involving charter flights is discussed in the EU Commission Green Paper on an EU policy on "return" (expulsion, deportation or repatriation) from the EU. In line with the Council of the European Union (the 15 EU governments) it says that the EU has to develop a detailed policy on expulsion "irregular migrants". Due to the various problems encountered by the state in its deportation attempts, the Commission recommends that instead of flying out from individual countries "joint operations" with "voluntary and forced returns" are to be encouraged. The French government has taken the lead on a project to rationalise expulsion measures, in particular by means of these "group returns" (doc no: 11388/02). France has therefore opened talks with Germany and the UK on the possibility of joint "European charters". The French Ministry of the Interior with responsibility for expulsion (DLPAJ/DCPAF Directorate of Civil Liberties and Legal Affairs/Central Border Police Directorate) is to organise monthly meetings to work out the procedure - which has to include: a legal framework; operational constraints (security rules during flights, composition of escort, requests to overfly third states etc); diplomatic constraints (issue of consular [EU] laissez-passer, reception by the authorities of the country of destination etc) (see Statewatch Bulletin vol 12 no 5). In Britain, the idea of mass deportation in the form of charter flights was also pursued in the government's White Paper on immigration, nationality and asylum, launched on 7 February 2002 (Statewatch vol 12 no 1).

What follows is by no means comprehensive list of chartered deportation flights that have taken place in Germany France and Britain over the past few years, followed by a chronicle of resistance to deportations through the targeting of airlines up to the end of March 2003 (see sources below).

Germany

Over the past three years more than 10,000 people are estimated to have been deported by charter flights from Germany. One major airline used for deportation is Tarom, destinations are mostly Eastern Europe, Turkey and the Middle East but also Nigeria and Sri Lanka. In Germany also, charter flights became government policy after scheduled airline flights started refusing to take deportees on board, especially after the death of Aamir Ageeb during his deportation on a Lufthansa flight in 1999. In Germany, the official focus is on 'potentially troublesome' refugees, who are seen as the maim problem with deportations. The use of force against is common and Tarom, together with German Federal Border Guards have come under criticism from the UNHCR for beating and using electric shock devices on a Kurdish refugee. Tarom employs its own security personnel.

UK

Since March 2001, over 4,000 Kosovans have been deported with charter flights under 'Operation Aardvark'. It is the first time that migrants and refugees are forcibly removed from the UK en masse, this time mainly to Tirana (Albania) and Pristina (Kosovo). 20 September 2002: 48 Roma are deported to the Czech Republic under the name 'Operation Elgar', media film crews are invited (and the footage is later screened in the Czech Republic) to witness the deportation in an attempt by the UK government to show Roma refugees, who suffer popular and institutional racism as well as economic destitution in Eastern Europe, that they are not welcome in Britain either.

28 April 2003: the UK government publicises its allegedly first mass deportation to Afghanistan, a country still deemed unsafe by the UNHCR and Amnesty International. Reports differ but the deportation involves around 20-30 people and is claimed to be the first in a series of mass deportations to Afghanistan. Britain is the first Western country to begin enforced deportation to the war torn country.

France

27 February 1997: 77 people are forcefully deported to Mali, bound to their seats. On arrival border guards start abusing the deportees, upon which they start attacking the guards, hospitalising 20 of the 47 Gendarme. The sans papiers, which were finding refuge from deportation in the Paris church of Saint Bernard at the time, call for a boycott of all "Racist Euro Charters".

3 March 2003: 54 people are forcefully deported to Senegal and Ivory Coast, accompanied by 89 French Gendarme and 4 German officials. Interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy announces that there will be one charter flight a week from now on.

25 March 2003: 55 citizens from Côte d'Ivoire and 10 Senegalese are deported against their will. This was the third charter flight from Roissy in March. Eyewitnesses reported abuse in the extraterritorial zone of the airport, numerous deportees were gagged, hands tied behind their backs and feet shackled, numbers put on their backs to identify them and they are thrown like parcels into busses.

27 March 2003: Spain and France conduct a combined deportation of 70 Roma to Romania.

Beginning of April: a co-organised deportation flight between Britain and France to Afghanistan.

Anti-deportation protests target aviation campaigns, and now charters

One reason for airlines of scheduled flights resisting taking over the government's deportation plans is widespread campaigning against aviation companies. Lufthansa, KLM, Tarom and more recently Air France have been the target of public criticism due to their involvement in forced deportation, in breach of their regulations and various ethical commitments enshrined in travel and tourist charters. What follows is a list of protests organised in Germany and France against Air France, as well as a list of successful anti-deportation actions which have involved the specific targeting of airlines. The move from scheduled to charter deportations has led to a shift in anti-deportation campaigning to include charter flight companies as well as travel agencies who do business with those companies. The campaigns are carried out by a variety of national groups and are often coordinated by the European noborder network (www.noborder.org), which was set up in 1999 to "work on the questions of migrants and asylum seekers in order to struggle alongside them for freedom of movement, for the freedom for all to stay in the place which they have chosen."

Berlin/Amsterdam, 29 June 2001: German and Dutch groups work together in halting the deportation of a Nigerian refugee by pressurising Lufthansa and KLM. Saka Depo O., after having been deported from Berlin to Amsterdam to go on to Lagos, is brought back to Berlin after KLM informs the campaigning group that it does not carry out deportations against people's wishes. A few days earlier Saka's deportation was stopped in Berlin when passengers on his deportation flight protested because he was handcuffed.

April 2002: KLM issues a press release stating that they do not deport people against their wishes.

Munich, 22 December 2002: Two deportations are stopped by actions in the plane and pressure on the deporting airlines KLM and Turkish Airlines. In the first case, KLM offices in Amsterdam and Munich are faxed two days before the deportation, informing them that the planned deportation is taking place against the refugee's will and that he is likely to resist his deportation. Activists had also bought a ticket for the flight with the intent of refusing to sit down during take-off. The deportation is halted and the activists are arrested but released after a few hours. The same day, activists receive a call from the relatives of an Iranian deportee whose deportation is scheduled for the same day. After a series of phone calls the airline refuses to take the deportee on board. A week later, Air France takes over deportations from Munich to Togo.

Paris, 30 January 2003: more than 20 sans papiers and members of the French pilot unions SUD Aerian and ALTER as well as activists from droits devant!! and members of a homeless collective occupy an Air France Agency at Invalides/Paris. They demand the immediate halt of any deportations by Air France, the suspension of border guard officers responsible for the two undocumented migrants who were killed on Air France aircrafts in December and January, as well as an independent inquiry into the deaths.

Munich, 8 February 2003: Air France is unimpressed by protests against the deportation of a Togolese woman to Lomé whose partner and three year old child are left behind in Munich. Federal Border Guards break the woman's arm during deportation. Activists suspect Air France of taking over the deportation business from KLM in Germany.

Paris, 9 February 2003: 50 activists from the Collectif Anti Expulsion lobby personnel and passengers to resist on flights suspected of 'hosting' deportees, followed by a demonstration at the check-in counters, distributing leaflets on how to stop a deportation flight and with information of the recent deportation deaths on Air France aircraft.

Frankfurt, 17 February 2003: Anti-racist activists prevented the deportation of a political refugee and member of the Southern Cameroon National Council (SCNC) and Southern Cameroon Youth League (SCYL) scheduled from Munich airport with Air France. They informed the pilot and flight crew about the forceful deportation and the likelihood of resistance, as well as reminding them of the two deaths that occurred a few months earlier. Activists bought a ticket for the flight with the intention of refusing to sit down during take-off. The pilot was persuaded to personally ask Ms. Kugo Oginia if she is willing to travel, a few minutes later she is taken off the plane and brought back to her place of residency in Germany.

Paris, 22 February 2003: Mass leafleting of Air France agencies, informing customers and employees of the recent deaths and offering instructions for passengers what to do in case they caught a deportation flight.

Paris, mid-March: Regular protests at Roissy airport with banners and leaflets at Air France check-in counters processing flights to Bamako, Cotonou, Ouagadougou, Dakar, Shanghai and Beijing. Berlin/Frankfurt/Düsseldorf, 9 March 2003: At the international tourism fair 'International Tourism Exchange ITB Berlin' and airports in Frankfurt and Düsseldorf, activists dress in flight attendants outfits and distribute leaflets in German and French, demanding an immediate stop to deportations, information on the two recent deaths and Air France's responsibilities in the matter. Potential tourists and passengers are informed on how to stop a deportation.

Paris, 20 March 2003: Around 100 sans papiers and support groups, including Bishop Jacques Gaillot, occupy the offices of the travel agency FRAM, which is the main commercial user (over 80%) of the EURALAIR-HORIZONS, the airline company that carries out France's deportation flights.

Sourcess: www.noborder.org, www.ncadc.org.uk, The Guardian 21.9.02, The Independent 29.4.2003, Statewatch Bulletin vol 3 nos 4 & 6, vol 6 no 5,vol 8 no 1, vol 9 no 1, vol 9 no 3/4, vol 11 no 2, vol 12 nos 1 & 5.

See also: Statewatch report: Italian Presidency proposes that officers in plainclothes drive unmarked police cars across the EU to deport migrants: "any possible legitimate "measure" [may be used] to prevent or terminate acts of resistance" and does the EU care more about cattle than people? Report and documentation



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