© Daniel Maurer/dpa

Europe's Deportation Machine

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.

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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.

Holiday or deportation? This is what it looks like when Frontex films mass repatriations. © Frontex/Screenshot ZEIT ONLINE

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.

Entrance to federal police headquarters in Potsdam. © Robert Schlesinger/dpa

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.

What Do Deportations Cost?

Federal Government

Nobody can say for certain what the total cost of deportations is to taxpayers. Last year, the German federal government spent around €2.7 million on escorts for deportees. Frontex provides financial assistance for some flights organized jointly by European countries. Individual costs can be seen in our graphic.

German States

With the exception of escorts performed by Germany's federal police force, German states are in charge of deportations and must pay most of the costs associated with the repatriation program. But each state books the costs differently. A survey performed by ZEIT ONLINE among the responsible state ministries gives some insight into how expensive deportations are. Thuringia, for example, has earmarked €300,000 in its budget for deportations whereas Lower Saxony has set aside €1 million. North Rhine-Westphalia has calculated its airborne deportation costs right down to the cent: €2,597,462.04. Other states, though, don’t even try to itemize the costs. Saxony, for example, lists deportations in its budget under "general travel costs," a category that also includes taxi fares for the police commissioner or the bus rented for a police academy excursion. Six states were unable to provide any information at all about the costs associated with deportations.

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."

How Human Rights Activists Monitor Deportations

Legal Framework

Since Dec. 16, 2008, all EU member states have been bound by the "common standards and procedures in Member States for returning illegally staying third-country nationals." Article 8 pertains to deportation and mandates that coercive measures employed in repatriation must be consistent with fundamental rights and with "due respect for the dignity and physical integrity of the third-country national concerned." To ensure the standard is met, the directive says that "Member States shall provide for an effective forced-return monitoring system." Each country may design such a monitoring system on its own.


Frontex would like to see the implementation of a standardized monitoring system for all European deportation flights. But EU member states have thus far resisted establishing such a system, meaning that each country continues organizing monitoring efforts on its own.

As a member of the Schengen area, Switzerland has adopted the EU directive and the National Commission for the Prevention of Torture is responsible for implementing it. Members of the commission accompany all deportation flights, file reports about them and document all notable incidents.

In Austria, a directive has been in place since 2011 requiring a human rights monitor to be on board every chartered deportation flight. The monitors come from the human rights group Verein Menschenrechte Österreich and they also monitor flights that are organized by Frontex.

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights keeps a list of all countries that allow observers on board repatriation flights.They include Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Spain, Finland, France, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland and Great Britain.


Germany was the first country in which an independent deportation monitoring system was established at airports. But to this day, the Interior Ministry refuses to allow monitors to board the planes carrying the deportees. The only two flights to have been monitored were back in 2013, accompanied by representatives from Germany's National Agency for the Prevention of Torture.

Representatives from local chapters of Diakonie, the Protestant church's welfare organization, or from the Catholic charity group Caritas work at airports in Frankfurt, Düsseldorf and Berlin, where most deportation flights originate. In cooperation with Germany's federal police force, they accompany deportees from their arrival at the airport until they board their flight. They assist all those assigned to charter flights and many who are bound for commercial flights. In addition, they report notable incidents in a forum maintained by police, state authorities and human rights organizations.

In Düsseldorf, deportation monitors, together with North Rhine-Westphalian authorities, have developed a detailed checklist that must be followed by police and immigration authorities as they prepare and carry out repatriation flights.

In Hamburg, where deportation flights also originate, the local Diakonie chapter ceased monitoring deportations in April 2015. They did so because the federal government, in addition to the state governments of Hamburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, refused to help finance the monitoring effort despite the EU guidelines.

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."

Police guarding deportees at the Baden-Baden airport. © Patrick Seeger/dpa

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.

For six years, Astrid Schukat was a deportation monitor at the Hamburg airport. © Jakob Börner

"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.

Rejected asylum applicants climb aboard an airport bus to be brought to a charter flight. © Daniel Maurer/dpa

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."

Deportation Professionals

A Job for the Federal Police Force

Repatriations, as the deportations are officially called by German authorities, are carried out almost exclusively by the federal police force. Only in rare instances do immigration officials or state police officers drive deportees in buses or cars to the border. Such cases almost always involve people who are being returned to a neighboring country, consistent with the Dublin Regulation. The Dublin Regulation holds that the country where a refugee first set foot in Europe is responsible for that refugee’s asylum proceedings.

Who Joins the Flights?

Federal police officers decide on their own whether they would like to accompany deportation flights. Those who agree to do so are given several weeks of training. They are given training in English, communications security, intercultural competence and various operational skills -- grips and holds, for example, that can be used to take away or immobilize those who resist. Officers use role playing and situational training to practice at the airport. Controllers observe the exercises and then decide whether individual officers are allowed to accompany deportation flights.

Frontex Training

Frontex trains so-called Escort Leaders, officials from EU member states who organize deportation flights on behalf of the border protection agency. Central training is designed to ensure unified standards as does a specifically designed code of conduct. Escort Leaders head up the operation, assign seats in the plane among the countries participating and ensure that the handover in the target country proceeds smoothly. Each country is responsible for its own people, but in an emergency, the Escort Leader decides what is to be done.

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."

A building for refugees at Berlin-Schönefeld airport © Patrick Pleul/dpa

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.

Düsseldorf hub

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