Race a question in deaths of Africans deported from Europe

Germany suspends forced expulsions after second death in a month May28. An investigation is pending.

Aamir Omar Mohamed Ahmad Ageeb was determined not to board the Lufthansa flight that was to take him back to his native Khartoum, Sudan, two weeks ago.

Rejected for political asylum and with a criminal record in Germany, Mr. Ageeb was accompanied to the plane at Frankfurt airport by three members of the Federal Border Guard. Because Ageeb violently resisted deportation, the officers bound his hands and feet and put a motorcycle helmet over his head, apparently to prevent him from biting them. During takeoff one officer allegedly pushed down Ageeb's head to hinder his resistance. The officer maintains that when he raised Ageeb's head again, the young man was dead.

For the second time within a month, an African had died during deportation from a European country. German Interior Minister Otto Schily immediately ordered a suspension of all airplane deportations involving people forcibly resisting expulsion. Mr. Schily said: "I want to guarantee 100 percent that nobody dies again during a deportation."

Only four weeks earlier, another rejected asylum seeker had died of suffocation while being deported from Vienna after officers taped his mouth shut.

Many enter, few can stay

Every month, tens of thousands of people enter Western Europe in search of a better life, and many apply for political asylum.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 366,000 asylum applications were made in 24 European countries last year, almost a third of them in Germany. Yet German authorities grant asylum to less than 5 percent of all applicants. The rest are asked - then often forced - to leave.

Interior Ministry spokeswoman Andrea Schumacher says 42,883 people were deported from Germany by plane in 1998. Most went reluctantly but peacefully.

While the 15-member European Union has in recent years moved fast in scrapping internal border controls and expanding economic cooperation, the EU has also shown an increasing intolerance for the poor, huddled masses to the south and east.

Germany, a natural magnet for immigrants because of its economic strength, tightened liberal asylum laws in 1993.

German authorities showed little patience with Bosnian refugees who lingered too long after the Dayton peace accords, and deportations continue to strife-ridden countries such as Algeria and Sudan.

Asylum seekers are widely regarded as freeloaders on the social welfare system, though benefits have been cut to a bare minimum.

Not just Germany

Germany is not alone, however, in rejecting and at times forcibly deporting asylum seekers.

Six years ago, a Jamaican woman died in England while being deported. In September, Semira Adamu, a young Nigerian woman, died after officers put a pillow over her face while trying to stifle her screams during deportation from Brussels airport. Belgian Interior Minister Louis Tobback resigned after the incident. In 1994, a gagged and bound Nigerian deportee died after being given a tranquilizer at Frankfurt airport.

The death of Marcus Omofuma - who witnesses said was "tied up like a mummy" for deportation to Sierra Leone - caused public outcry in Austria in early May.

Race a common element

One unmistakable similarity in these deaths by deportation is that all of the victims were black.

"There is a racist context," says Karl Kopp of the Frankfurt-based human-rights organization Pro Asyl. "We have the impression that the darker a person's skin, the lower the [authorities'] threshold to use force."

Another disturbing question raised by these deaths is how many more cases of excessive violence by the authorities go undiscovered. "There is an immense gray zone," says Mr. Kopp, "because one man claims he was mistreated, and three men in uniform say he forcibly resisted."

In April 1998, the Ghanian immigration authority briefly detained four officers of the German Federal Border Guard accompanying a deportee back to Accra.

Furious passengers claimed the German officers had maltreated Joseph Gyimah by putting chains around his feet and stomach, taping his hands behind the seat, and placing a motorcycle helmet on his head.

The officers were later released, to the considerable embarrassment of the German government.

A new partnership

To avoid similar situations in the future, governments are increasingly interested in having security officers of desti-nation countries take custody of deportees - before takeoff at European airports.

For example, Germany has an agreement with Algiers allowing Algerian police to accompany rejected asylum seekers on flights back home.

Although there has been little political outcry in Germany following the death of Ageeb May 28, the Federal Interior Ministry has indicated it will await the results of the Frankfurt state attorney office's investigation, and take measures accordingly.

Some conservative politicians have criticized the moratorium on the expulsion of so-called "refractory deportees," however, claiming it will only encourage violent resistance by rejected asylum seekers. For the time being, some state authorities have been looking for legal ambiguities to continue forcible deportations.

Last week, a Turkish teenager was reportedly deported from Hamburg.

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