Deportation flights criticised after incident

Migration officials admitted things had "not gone as planned" on the ground

Swiss migration officials say deportation flights of rejected asylum seekers will continue despite video evidence showing clashes with police on a Lagos-bound plane.

This content was published on July 8, 2011 - 15:11

Footage of incidents on Thursday at Zurich airport marred the first day that special deportation flights from Switzerland to Nigeria had resumed in over a year. The flights had been suspended following the death of a Nigerian asylum seeker who was being extradited.

Thursday’s German-language television news programme, 10 to 10, showed a video of two of the Nigerians resisting boarding, with policemen punching one of the men, and another clubbing him as they attempted to carry him onto the aircraft. (See video)

The incidents have now been reported to Zurich police. The Swiss International Air Lines flight did take off later carrying 19 instead of 21 Nigerians on board.

The Federal Migration Office admitted to 10 to 10 that the “preparation on the ground had not gone as planned”.

Spokesman Joachim Gross later told it was not possible to say how such problems could be avoided in the future, adding: “There will be special flights in the future.”

Also on board Thursday’s flight were 40 police, two members of the National Commission for the Prevention of Torture and four members of the Nigeria Immigration Service.

Observers needed

Less than a month ago migration officials announced that future flights would have independent observers on board, in line with Europe’s Dublin accord on asylum seekers.

The Federation of Protestant Churches has agreed to take part in a six-month trial, assisted by the Swiss Refugee Council, overseeing the monitoring of flights. However their role doesn’t start until the autumn, as people are still to be enlisted to serve as observers, and need special training.

But the Federation told the events showed how important their role would be. “There is a need for monitoring and what happened yesterday shows this.”

Human rights observers went further, saying the flights should be halted.

Bern-based Solidarité sans frontières immediately issued a statement saying the 10 to 10 video showed a Nigerian being “brutally beaten” with “disproportionate force”.

This was proof that "forced deportations are inhumane and therefore unacceptable”, despite pledges by the migration authorities to limit the use of police handling. Secretary general Moreno Casasola said: “One could say the Migration Office has not learned anything from last year’s incident.”

The non-governmental organisation said such deportations should be permanently abandoned, and added that the forced expulsions were also expensive and inefficient on the whole.

It backed a call by the Swiss branch of Amnesty International for an independent investigation into Thursday’s incidents.

“Shocking images”

Amnesty said the entire incident needed examining, from the preparatory stages to the moment the people involved were taken to a police cell.

“These pictures are shocking. They make you think,” Denise Graf of Amnesty International Switzerland told 10 to 10.

“Amnesty International has repeatedly received complaints from people who refused to be put on a plane, and who said that they were beaten. In the past, the prosecutor’s office has not taken these testimonials seriously. But now such an incident has been captured on camera.”

Even the police were shocked by the footage.

Marcel Strebel, Zurich cantonal police, said: “I have to admit that these pictures don’t look good.”

He noted that initial reports from officers on the scene said one of the men had held onto the railings of the airplane steps and that the police had hit his hand with a club. “We also know that he threatened another person involved, that is to say he attacked him physically. But we have to verify these statements.”

“We will review the incidents with all those involved and establish how exactly it all came about. We have to wait for the outcome of the examination,” he said.

Nigerian asylum seekers

The Swiss authorities suspended all forced deportation flights after a 29-year-old Nigerian died at Zurich airport during his repatriation in March 2010. The man had been on hunger strike in protest at his extradition, and fell ill shortly after being forcibly restrained.

A post mortem found the man, a convicted drug dealer, had died of a heart condition that was nearly impossible to diagnose. The government paid his family SFr50,000 as a “humanitarian gesture in an exceptional situation”.

His death was the third such death in Switzerland. In 1999 a 27-year-old Palestinian suffocated in a lift at Zurich airport. He had been accompanied by three police officers. In 2001 a Nigerian suffocated in his cell after a show of police force.

Repatriation flights resumed to other countries in June 2010. However, the first deportations of Nigerians were only restarted at the beginning of 2011 following a bilateral agreement reached in November between Switzerland and Nigeria, with people either leaving of their own accord or being sent back on joint European Union flights. The flight on July 7 was the first official deportation Swiss flight to Nigeria since then.

According to the Federal Migration Office 1,969 Nigerians applied for asylum in Switzerland in 2010. More than 700 were transferred to other European states that, under the Dublin Regulation on asylum procedures, were held to be responsible for their processing.

Another 286 rejected asylum seekers returned directly to Nigeria; 165 voluntarily and 121 “involuntarily”.

The Migration Office says that Nigerians who have not committed any crimes, and have not been placed in detention centres, can apply for assistance of up to SFr6,000 to make a new start upon returning home.

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