Collective deportation flights to Afghanistan are a controversial issue in Germany, as many people believe that Afghanistan should not be deemed a safe country of origin. Journalists working for DPA now had unprecedented access to one of those flights, highlighting the experience from all angles.
The issue of deportation flights to Afghanistan is a contentious subject in Germany. Many people believe that Afghanistan should not be treated as a safe country of origin that people can be returned to, as terror attacks continue to cost dozens of lives.
Others, however, feel that the migrant situation across Europe has to be managed and maintained somehow, and that deportations to Afghanistan have to be part of a number of options.
Those who face deportation are clearly not happy about their situation. They've often travelled for months under precarious circumstances while paying people smugglers enormous sums to get to Europe. Some of them have spent years in Germany, getting involved in local communities and starting new lives only to learn that they no longer were deemed welcome.
The situation can, however, be equally taxing for those who are actively involved in executing deportation orders. The German DPA news agency now gained unprecedented access to what's happening behind the scenes before, during and immediately after deportation journeys, recounting the stories of those responsible for making sure that deportation orders are carried out without any glitches.
The end of the road
The DPA journalists detailed all the procedures involved during a recent deportation flight departing from Leipzig and shared comments from federal police employees who voluntarily participate in deportation flights.
They highlight how the procedure begins: The deportees are brought to the airport by armed policemen and women from the states from which they are being deported and handed over to unarmed federal policemen and women at the airport. Then they are kept in a waiting area far away from the airport's regular everyday business, where they are constantly escorted by almost twice as many federal police officers as the number of deportees present.
After being instructed on what they should expect from the beginning to the end of their journey with the help of a translator, the deportees are each individually inspected behind closed doors in a room away from the heavily guarded waiting area. One particular guard, who has actively participated in the return to Afghanistan of more than 3,000 deportees, told DPA that this inspection wasn't pleasant for anyone involved but had to be done as part of routine procedures.
Then the deportees are moved to another waiting area until each one has fully been inspected and searched. During this whole time, they are constantly under surveillance. If they wish to use the toilet, they are even accompanied there.
Once everyone has been instructed and searched, the deportees all prepare to board a bus that will then take them to the aircraft.
Final steps in Germany
During this particular Boeing 767 flight to Kabul, there are 45 deportees to Afghanistan – a relatively high number compared to previous deportation flights, which is partly why there are more than 70 federal employees helping. Chartered deportation flights carry no regular passengers, even if there are only a few deportees to be returned.
Once the bus arrives at the aircraft, every deportee has to be individually escorted to their seat on board, with an officer accompanying them on either side. Those that prove to be particularly reluctant by resisting either actively or passively are restricted in what is referred to as a "body cuff," a garment that limits upper body movement.
Passengers that continue to resist once on the plane are seated toward the back of the cabin. The federal agents refer to these deportees as "difficult cases" in German, but in a way that implies an adolescent lack of willing to cooperate — like they are refusing to do their homework. There are no specifics on how many passengers on the flight from Leipzig are acting "unruly" during their final steps taken in Germany but the report implies that there is more than just one such case on board. Officers wear special protective gear to prevent themselves from being spat at during these moments. This is described as the most difficult part of the whole process.
Like any other flight, there are also air hostesses present on board the aircraft on this journey, who according to the DPA journalists continue to smile in a professional manner as if this was just like any other flight. While they know fully well about the nature of this one-way journey, they are not informed about any details regarding individual cases. Whether they will be serving dinner, for example, to a former Taliban fighter is not disclosed to them.
After final take-off preparations, the plane lifts off amid an air of silence. At this point, the DPA journalists say, most on board have resigned themselves to their fates. Only one person still needs to be restrained at this point. There's an air of silence.
Like on any other flights, there is an onboard service that includes meals and beverages as well as some comforts to make the journey more pleasant, including cushions and blankets. It's an overnight flight, but only few of the deportees feel like sleeping on this one-way journey. There are back up officers on board the aircraft should any of the policemen and women on duty feel they need to take a break or a nap.
The charter flight to Kabul is one of a kind insofar that there are no scheduled direct flights to Afghanistan from Germany. There are no stopovers, no detours, no scenic routes. As the plane begins to descend for landing, those on board — Afghan deportees and German security escorts alike — begin to get a glimpse of the mountains surrounding the capital city, Kabul. For some on board this is home but for the majority of police officers it is another day at work.
Upon landing in Kabul, things are a bit different than an average flight. Four officer storm off the aircraft to secure it, making sure there are no threats from outside the plane as Kabul continues to be the scene of suicide bombings and other attacks.
The deportees then get off the plane showing mixed responses. Some of them kiss the ground when they land — they have returned home. Others apathetically shake hands with Afghan security personnel on the tarmac, knowing that their fate is sealed.
A bus takes them to the terminal building, where their papers are checked. Each deportee is given a sum of about €150 upon arrival by the UN intended to tide them over in Kabul for the first few days. During those days, the returnees have to figure out what their next moves are, where they're going, how they're going to get there and what might await them upon their homecoming.
Not everything goes according to plan. The security forces have to be able to accommodate last-minute changes and improvise accordingly. Some more fortunate migrants might receive a last minute stay after a review of their asylum application case. However, this is rare.
The majority of the deportees that were supposed to be taken back to Afghanistan but don't end up being on the flight simply never show up and go into hiding, others are deemed unable to travel due to acute illness. Lawmakers are hoping to change Germany's immigration law in a way that deportation flights become more profitable.
The majority of these flights are funded by the EU's border agency FRONTEX, and auditors would like to see the flights show a higher success rate.
A 'successful' journey
While the deportees have reached their final destination, the journey continues for the 74 German policemen and women who accompanied them here. As far as they're concerned, the flight was a success. There were no unpleasant episodes or difficult situations to master this time around.
One 36-year-old policeman named Matthias told DPA that in the past, deportees had gone as far as soiling themselves deliberately during the flight to make the experience as unpleasant as possible for all involved. Another time he recalls how there were fist fights on board an aircraft that had to be contained.
This particular flight went rather well, he summarizes, and changes into civilian clothing for the rest of the journey. Everyone looks tired after spending hours on edge, making sure the deportation flight went smoothly.
The plane first continues to Tashkent in Uzbekistan to refuel and to change crews, and then takes a stopover in Tbilisi, Georgia to give the police officers an opportunity to unwind and have breakfast.
The officers escorting the deportees have mixed feelings about the whole experience afterwards. There is a pool of 1,500 officers across Germany who volunteer to take on duties during deportation flights. Some do so more frequently than others, as participation in each individual flight is also completely voluntary. Some of them for instance refuse to fly to Afghanistan because of the security situation there and only participate in other deportation flights. Others, who participate in deportation flights to Afghanistan, say they don't tell their families that this is the line of work they do. The issue is too divisive to be fully transparent about it, policeman Matthias told DPA.
Some of the officers say that they're used to the routine by now, having flown dozens of deportation flights over the years. Some say they even keep on bumping into each other on duty, as they volunteer to work on almost every deportation flight.
Others report that they cannot help
thinking about the experience off-duty as well. Police officer Stephan told DPA
that he copes by trying to relate to those on board in order to build trust
with the deportees and try to keep the situation under control during the
flight. "That strategy works most of the time — but not always," he
Another officer, who is mainly in charge of organizing the logistics of the deportation flights, said, however, that she does think about the deportees a lot when she goes home after work. "We're also just human, so you cannot expect that this kind of work won't leave any trace behind. I often think especially about the deported families with little children who grew up in Germany," the officer, who didn't want to be named, told DPA.