Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees

RIGHTS: EU Prepares to Fling Out More Migrants

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Jul 8 2008 (IPS) - Serge Fosso was putting his hand luggage in the overhead compartment when he heard cries coming from another passenger. It was then he realised that the flight he had boarded in Brussels – destined for Douala – was being used to forcibly deport a Cameroonian immigrant.

Deciding that he could not “remain indifferent to this cry for help,” Fosso was one of several passengers who registered their concern about what they were witnessing. He managed to film a group of policemen closing around the immigrant, before he heard one officer say, “take him, too.”

Fosso was handcuffed, escorted back into the airport and taken to a cell, where he was kept for 11 hours, without being offered anything to eat or drink or the possibility to make a phone call.

Later, he would learn from a Belgian journalist that the deportation, scheduled for Apr. 26, did not proceed as planned. After the on-board commotion, the immigrant, 32-year-old Ebinezer Folefack Sontsa, was removed to a detention centre known as Merksplas, where he committed suicide, hanging himself with bed linen.

Speaking in Brussels Jul. 8, another passenger on that flight, French resident Hermine Rigaux, said that she had also protested when she noticed that Sontsa, who was four or five rows from where she had been seated, was distressed. She was told by a policeman that Sontsa was merely acting. She was told, too, that the immigrant had been given 250 euros (400 dollars), so that he could fend for himself back in Cameroon.

“I said ‘are you joking?’,” she commented. “Of course, we understand very well that clandestine migration can cause difficulties for Europe. But you should help them return home with a proper plan, not just with 250 euros.”

After speaking to the officer, Rigaux turned away from him. She was about to return to her husband Gilles, when she was pushed to the floor. “I said to the policeman leave me alone. He said ‘no, I won’t, I am the law’. He had his hand on my throat and was applying pressure to it.”

Gilles Rigaux added: “I am a former policeman, and during my time in the police I never saw this kind of thing. There is no reason to push a woman to the floor like that.”

The three passengers have decided to take legal action over the incident. Fosso, in particular, is adamant that there were no grounds to apprehend him. He is also angry that SN Brussels, the airline used for the attempted deportation, has banned him from its flights for six months. The company has turned down an invitation from human rights organisations to state publicly why it took such action against a man who claims to have done nothing more subversive than exercise his right to free speech.

Sontsa’s suicide is not the first time that heavy-handed tactics used during deportations from Belgium have had fatal consequences.

In 1998, a Nigerian woman Semira Adamu died of suffocation. Police tried to muffle her shouts with a pillow when she became agitated during efforts to expel her from Belgium. Adamu was 20; this was the sixth effort to make her leave the country.

According to official European Union estimates, there are about eight million people living on EU territory who lack permission to be there. These people are routinely described as illegal immigrants, even though few have been convicted of a recognisable offence. During the first half of 2007, over 200,000 immigrants were arrested in the Union. Some 90,000 were deported.

Expulsions are likely to become more common, thanks to an ‘asylum and immigration pact’ approved by EU governments Jul. 7. This agreement commits governments to take joint action between them – including chartering flights in the name of several EU states – “to ensure the removal of foreigners in an irregular situation.” It also says that the Union should conclude ‘readmission agreements’ with countries from which large numbers of immigrants hail. Under such agreements, the latter countries would be required to take back their citizens once they are told to quit European soil.

Brice Hortefeux, the French immigration minister who was one of the key negotiators of the pact, described its provisions as “balanced and fair.”

But Gabriele Zimmer, a German left-wing member of the European Parliament, accused France, the current holder of the EU’s presidency, of promoting “racist policies”. EU governments are ignoring how Europe’s increasingly restrictive approach to asylum and immigration matters has been condemned by Latin American leaders, including Evo Morales of Bolivia and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Zimmer added.

“What these politicians are actually doing is clearing the way to deport migrants as fast as they can from European territory,” she said. “After that, they will be able to pick and choose amongst those who are most likely to be used as human capital for the European market.”

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