The arrival of refugees to the EU is often chaotic and messy. But when it comes to getting rid of those who aren't wanted, the system is extremely efficient.
In the short, 11-minute film on YouTube, mass deportations look almost idyllic. A chartered plane takes off from Borlänge, Sweden and flies into the setting sun. The camera pans down the rows of seats inside, showing Roma children with their sleepy heads resting on their parents' shoulders and young men gazing thoughtfully at the clouds outside the window. The police officers on board are wearing yellow vests in lieu of uniforms. They almost look like vacationers on their way south.
The film was made for Frontex, the European Union's external border protection agency. And it seems to want to suggest that deportations from Europe are routine, free of conflict and unremarkable.
It’s not just propaganda. A vast deportation apparatus has indeed been established in Europe. It is efficient and highly professional and operates largely out of the public eye. The number of refugees who reach Europe every day may be in the thousands and the agencies charged with feeding and lodging them may be taxed to the breaking point -- but the deportation system works disturbingly well.
To ensure a smooth repatriation system, Europe has established air bridges: broad ones heading to the western Balkans, slightly narrower ones connecting the Continent with sub-Saharan Africa and slender links with almost all other regions of the world where people are poorer than they are here. Those who must leave the EU, take to the air in flights arranged by Frontex or, more often, by individual EU member states.
Germany has developed three escalating deportation models to ensure that nobody slated for repatriation can escape. The first model involves officials picking up the deportee at home and bringing him or her to the airport. There, police officials accompany them to a regular commercial flight and then allow them to board alone. The second is for those who have refused such a trip at least once before and envisions civilian officials accompanying the deportee in the airplane as well. That, though, can be delicate given that the captain has the final say over who flies in the plane and who does not. Deportees who refuse to sit, attempt to resist or yell are often ordered by the captain to deplane.
That is why Germany's federal police force prefers the third method: chartering planes solely for deportation purposes. Rented aircraft allow them to fly hundreds of returnees out of the country at the same time, not just the two or three possible on commercial flights. Lists kept by a central booking center used by all German immigration authorities show who is to be flown out of Germany and when. Air travel experts say that flights to common destinations have a fixed price whereas other flights come at a price of between €7,000 to €8,000 per hour on planes chartered from Air Berlin, for example. In addition, though, a slot must also be found, which isn’t always easy in peak travel seasons. Sometimes, German officials have to transfer the entire process to more remote airports like Kassel-Calden.
Those looking for deeper insight into exactly how repatriation flights work are confronted with an impenetrable system. The federal police coolly declined this reporter's request to accompany a chartered deportation flight as well as the request to at least observe the boarding procedure at the airport. Out of consideration for the deportees.
Reporters are at least allowed to visit Potsdam, though. Just outside the city center, the lush grounds of the federal police headquarters can be found. The historic brick building used to house a mental hospital. The woman who organizes deportation flights in Germany for the states or for Frontex sits in a nondescript office on the ground floor. She’s dressed in jeans and a blazer and wears her hair short. Later, a press spokesman asks us not to publish her name, but we are allowed to quote her. "Expenditures are rising," she says.
They are in fact rising significantly. In 2014, Germany's federal police organized a total of 42 repatriation charter flights, but the number is likely to more than double this year. By the end of June, there had already been 54 flights.
For the federal police force, deportations are primarily a logistical problem. How can one get the greatest number of people to peacefully leave the country when they don't want to leave of their own accord? What exactly happens at the airports? What happens in the air? Officials in Potsdam are unprepared to give detailed answers, leaving us with no other option than to ask others who are familiar with the procedure.
Astrid Schukat is one of them. Until April, she was a deportation observer at the Hamburg airport, before funding for her position ran out. The resolute, 47-year-old social worker has worked with refugees for around 16 years. She began by visiting detainees waiting to be deported in the Glasmoor prison north of Hamburg as a university student. "We weren’t allowed to advise them. We could just play board games with them," she says. Schukat never again saw most of the refugees she worked with back then. "I wasn't able to prevent the people from being deported, but I could accompany them on part of their journey."
It was an experience that would repeat itself later when she worked as a deportation monitor. For six years, Schukat drove to Terminal Tango at the Hamburg airport in the early morning hours, between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. Today, the terminal is used to host events, but federal police officers use it to assemble those tagged for deportation. They are people for whom the German language doesn't even have a common term, with Austria, Switzerland and Germany all choosing different words. Schukat calls them "clients."
State police and immigration officials deliver the deportees, who are gathered from all northern German states, to the terminal in buses with tinted windows. The police officers charged with deporting them have no knowledge of their individual stories.
First, they are searched. "They have to take off their shoes, socks, long pants and sweaters," Schukat says. Officials are particularly worried about someone having hidden a shard of glass or a razor blade with which to injure him- or herself. That, after all, would force the postponement of the deportation. Then, luggage is scanned. Each deportee is allowed to take 20 kilograms of baggage, though some arrive at the airport without a suitcase, having had only enough time to cram their belongings into a plastic bag or a cardboard box. Passengers aren’t allowed to carry anything with them on board, including carry-on bags.
Documents are also examined. Do they have a passport? Were they given pocket money? Do they have a medical problem? Have they been certified as fit to fly? Interpreters are on hand to assist should officials and deportees have trouble understanding each other. A doctor is also present to examine those who may not be healthy enough to fly after all. Those who have gone through the entire procedure are led to a separate waiting area.
"Many are completely disillusioned, some are desperate and a few cry," says Schukat, when asked about the state of those who find themselves in such a situation. Some would tell her their stories, with many saying they had lived in Germany for many years before finally getting a letter stating that their asylum request had been definitively rejected and asking them to leave. Uncertainty as to the exact timing of deportation often follows. Some are told when they will be flown out days in advance. Others, though, are not for fear that they might try to hide.
German officials usually show up in the middle of the night. Officials in target countries prefer to deal with new arrivals during their normal working hours, requiring flights to land by early afternoon, if possible. That often means that flights must leave as early as 7 a.m. Deportees must be at the airport two hours prior to the flight, meaning 5 a.m. In some states, like Lower Saxony or North Rhine-Westphalia, drives of up to two hours to the airport are not uncommon. The result is that officials often pick up deportees as early as 2:30 a.m.
Often, deportees have little time to pack their things and they forget important documents, diapers for the children, their mobile phone, money or medication. In their consternation, they sometimes forget to put on decent shoes or a jacket. Schukat remembers one woman who showed up at the airport still wearing her pajamas. The deportees are also afraid of what will happen when they return home and how they will be treated. Traumatic memories from their past are reawakened. Some collapse under the strain.
Very few become violent, says Schukat and police must intervene only rarely. When they do, they proceed slowly and clearly announce their intention to restrain someone before doing so, Schukat says.
Matthias Wiemann can confirm her account. He is police commissioner at the Hannover airport and trained as a so-called Frontex Escort Leader. For several years, he has been in charge of repatriation flights. He isn’t allowed to show us around, but he talks much more freely than his superior in Potsdam and is unconcerned about speaking of the disagreeable aspects of his job. They can be summed up in a single sentence: "Nobody goes voluntarily. Every deportation takes place against the will of the one being deported."
Those who resist are not forced into the plane and their deportation is often postponed. But prior to the second attempt, such deportees usually have their hands bound together by Velcro straps. Traditional handcuffs are generally shunned for safety reasons; should the plane crash, the restraints must be easily removable. But in the most difficult cases, so-called body cuffs are used, which binds hands to a belt tied around the deportee's waist. Leg restraints and helmets are also occasionally used, to protect against kicks and bites.
Schukat was only able to observe such proceedings. She was not allowed to intervene. But she was allowed to speak to the deportees. "When you speak with the clients, you are at least able to share their pain, helplessness, anger and incomprehension."
Depending on the flight, passengers are sometimes given a packaged meal, often vegetarian or halal. Sometimes they receive a cold snack on board. Because deportees could use hot food to injure themselves or their escorts, it is considered to be too dangerous. In Hamburg, the planes used for such flights are generally parked in a hangar so that nobody can observe the boarding process. Police line the gangway, with an average of 20 to 30 officers accompanying the flight. All of them volunteer for the duty with no one being forced to take part in detention flights.
Observers such as Schukat are kept out of the hangar and Germany's Interior Ministry prevents human rights activists from joining the flights. Commissioner Wiemann, though, does fly along occasionally -- at least once a month. It is likely that he will soon have to fly much more often. With the number of flights on the rise, a shortage of officers trained for such flights is looming.
How often German states participated in joint deportation flights in 2014 and where they took off from
Most flights are bound for the Balkans
Number of deportees by airport and destination country
Deportees are welcomed aboard by a normal crew, just like any flight to a vacation destination. There’s one flight attendant for every 50 passengers, as called for by regulations. Who is allowed to sit where is determined by a danger analysis completed prior to boarding. Families are seated together as are women and children traveling alone. Young men tend to be accompanied by several officials while released convicts or notorious criminals are specially placed. Then, it's time for takeoff.
Once the plane doors are shut, tension on board generally eases slightly. But it ratchets back up again during the approach. Some tremble for fear of what is awaiting them while others scream. "During the landing phase, it can get extremely emotional," says Wiemann. It is a delicate moment, during which passengers can easily join forces when someone becomes angry. What do they do in such a case? "Talk and talk some more and keep the people busy. That helps," Wiemann says. Officials in the destination country are informed of the flight, but they are not told why passengers are being deported, even if they are released convicts. Usually, the deportees arrive much like tourists would. Only in Nigeria do security personnel insist on receiving each passenger at the plane door.
Over the years, the flights have become routine for Frontex and for Germany's federal police force. But it is a fragile routine, because officials find themselves confronted by many unpredictable variables. They start long before the transport even arrives at the airport. Will state police officers find deportees at home? Are they perhaps too sick to be put on a flight? Pregnant women beyond the 32nd week are no longer allowed to fly.
Often, deportations fail due to insufficient documentation, with important papers missing or identities unable to be conclusively determined. And what happens when an expedited court review determines that a deportation must be stopped?
"In the first quarter of 2015 alone, we were forced to cancel the deportation of several thousand people," says the deportation organizer in Potsdam. Once, she said, only nine out of 100 expected passengers showed up for a flight. "If I want to fill 100 seats, I have to have a list of at least 300 people who I generally know where they are."
A new law aims at solving that problem. It calls for a four day detention period prior to deportation. But will it help? "In principle, yes," says the deportation organizer, "if there is an appropriate facility at the airport."
This single word, "appropriate," seems to reveal an approach that is, in fact, more than just routine. So too does this sentence from Commissioner Wiemann: "No deportations without regards for the consequences." Indeed, the federal police force has won over the respect of many human rights observers.
Will they be able to maintain this approach? Germany deported around 11,000 people last year. In the first five months of this year, it was 4,500. Germany hasn’t deported this many people since the early 1990s, a time when the country was debating its asylum laws. As recently as 2008, annual deportations stood at around 8,000. Now, though, the number is climbing by the month.
One reason for the climbing numbers is a deal reached by German lawmakers, formalized in a new law passed recently by parliament in Berlin. It is a deal that could also become a model for European policy. At its essence, it allows "good refugees" to stay and forces "bad refugees" to go. "Good," in this sense, means those who are politically oppressed at home and are threatened with torture or death. "Bad" are refugees who left their home for Europe due to poverty. Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer refers to the latter practice as "asylum abuse."
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière expresses it like this: "The right to remain for well integrated and law abiding foreigners on the one hand and an end to residential permits for those who do not require protection on the other. Both messages belong together." European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos has adopted a similar formulation for Europe. If member states agree to take in more politically oppressed refugees, the EU, he says, will intensify its deportation efforts.
As such, the question is not whether what is taking place at European airports violates police policy, court rulings or human rights. It doesn't. Rather, the question is how much cold routine our rich society would like to adopt when it comes to sending people away. Whether we really have to send away people who are poor, but willing to work. Where poverty ends and oppression begins. And how much humanity is possible.
Translated by Charles Hawley