By Ariane Gigon (Translated from French by Thomas Stephens)
Forced deportation flights of rejected asylum seekers will start again this month, having been suspended following the death of a Nigerian in March.
However, the presence of extra medical supervision on board has generated a controversy.
“Transported like packages,” is how human rights organisations describe deportations of people who have had applications for asylum turned down and who do not want to return home voluntarily.
On these flights, men – women are never involved – are bound in such a way that they can neither stand up nor stretch out their arms in front of them.
“There have been deaths in Britain, France and all countries that deport people in this way,” said Lilo König, co-founder of Zurich’s Augenauf human rights organisation.
On March 17, Switzerland witnessed its third death under these conditions. Alex K., a 29-year-old convicted drug dealer, suffered a heart attack and died at Zurich airport.
The heart attack was probably brought on by the fact that the man had been on a hunger strike and was in a stressed state at the time, according to the Zurich cantonal justice authorities’ report published on June 28.
He was suffering from a serious heart condition that had not been diagnosed. The report noted that the condition is “almost impossible” to detect while a patient is alive.
The Federal Migration Office paid SFr50,000 ($43,500) to his family as a “humanitarian gesture” towards the family and to help to pay for the funeral costs.
The death resulted in all deportation flights being temporarily suspended until the cause of death of the Nigerian asylum seeker was known.
“Inhumane and unworthy”
But the justice authorities’ report is confidential and several questions remain unanswered.
“What is described as a ‘stressed state’ is very vague,” said Thomas Schnyder, a member of the association for independent doctors, which pushes for “a fair and social health system”.
“We know that extreme external stress situations can put a person’s life in danger, even with young athletes.”
He added that it’s not necessary to have a pre-existing heart problem to be at risk.
“Forced immobilisation for more than ten hours, including having to wear a helmet, the inability to urinate or eat without assistance – these are not only inhumane and unworthy practices, but also significant stress factors,” he said.
The association for independent doctors and Augenauf have called for forced deportations to be halted, with the former saying doctors should refuse to take part.
Medical supervision on flights is the plan of the Federal Migration Office, which coordinates the deportations along with the 26 cantonal justice and police authorities.
From July, when such flights will resume to Africa, a doctor and a first-aid worker will be on board and will monitor the medical situation of those being sent back.
“We’re in the process of gathering a group of doctors,” said Urs von Arb, head of the deportation section. “Obviously some are refusing. That could also be for logistical reasons.”
The issue of having doctors on the flights also concerns Jacques de Haller, president of the Swiss doctors’ association.
He believes each doctor should decide depending on their conscience. “But people are kidding themselves if they think rejected asylum seekers are going to go peacefully just because there’s a doctor on board,” he said.
Do the doctors not risk being exploited? “Ethical directives for doctors are important,” says de Haller. “A medical opinion must not be a factor in whether to deport someone or not – but furthermore the doctor must be able to withdraw at any moment.”
De Haller also argues that “only doctors that have been trained for this – such as prison doctors – should be solicited. These situations exert a serious psychological pressure on the doctor”.
Amnesty International is calling for a revision of the entire forced deportation policy.
“The problem is that the rejected asylum seekers are sometimes put on such flights without knowing it,” said Manon Schick from the human rights organisation’s Swiss section.
“Some try to get back money from postal accounts, which is enough to get them branded stubborn by the authorities. With the rare exception, prison directors don’t tell them that several police officers are going to take them from their cell at the crack of dawn, restrain them and take them by force onto an airplane,” she said.
“And we don’t understand why the government still hasn’t looked into the use of independent observers, something it must do by 2011. The presence of doctors is a step in the right direction, but it’s not their role to judge the situation in its entirety and any possible insults or reactions.”
The Federal Migration Office did not reply to swissinfo.ch’s questions concerning independent observers.