Air Europa reluctant to talk about the ‘delicate subject’ of forcible deportation
Air Europa was the carrier of 60 Nigerian migrants who were forcibly deported from Spain last month. The charter flight carrying the 45 men and 15 women arrived at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos on 10th February. Three days earlier, a joint European mass deportation flight returned 85 Nigerians to Lagos from at least three different European countries.
In an email to John O of Freemovement, Air Europa’s communications officer, Marcos Sierra Clemares, confirmed that the airline has an agreement with the Spanish interior ministry to “[send] back the immigrants to his [sic] countries” but declined to give any further details. “As you understand,” he added, “[this] is something that we never speak about because [it] is a delicate subject.”
Air Europa Líneas Aéreas is the third-largest airline in Spain after Iberia and Vueling. Its fleet comprises 33 Boeing 737 aircrafts, four Boeing 767’s and three Airbus 330’s. The airline is headquartered in the Centro Empresarial Globalia in Llucmajor, Majorca, Spain and has offices around the world (see here). Since September 2007, it has been a member of the SkyTeam alliance.
Air Europa is 100% owned by Globalia, a travel and tourism company headed by Juan José Hidalgo. Globalia’s other businesses include Halcón Viajes and Viajes Ecuador, the group’s retailing network with over 1,200 travel agents in Spain and Portugal; Travelplán, a tour operator with over 100 destinations worldwide; Groundforce, a handling company that has a monopoly at Madrid and Barcelona airports and operates in a dozen other airports in Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Mexico; Globalia Sistemas and Comunicaciones, which specialises in information technology software in the travel and tourism sector; Pepecar.com, a Spanish low-cost travel company; and Century21, an estate agent franchise with over 6,600 properties in Spain alone.
Corporate Watch has counted at least seven mass deportation flights from Spain to Nigeria between May 2009 and February 2011 in which Air Europa was involved, deporting a total of 344 men, women and children. The flights, all carrying flight number AEA911, typically leave the Madrid airport in the morning and arrive at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos in the afternoon.
In addition, Spain has participated in many joint European mass deportation flights to Nigeria, coordinated by the EU border agency, Frontex. According to official statistics, there were 17 such flights to Lagos in 2009, deporting a total of 849. Of these, Spain participated in five. In 2010, there were 15 flights, of which Spain participated in five as well. The average cost of a Frontex deportation flight in 2010 was £236,962, or £5,073 per person. The average cost of a Frontex flight to Nigeria in the same year was slightly higher, ranging between 199,000 and 381,000 euros.
Thousands of Nigerians have also been deported by Libya – acting as Fortress Europe’s external border guard – having been prevented from entering Spain and other southern European countries. On 27th September 2009, for example, Libya deported 150 Nigerians on board an aircraft bearing the registration number SUBME. Within 24 hours, and whilst they were still being ‘processed’ by the Nigerian immigration authorities, a second group of deportees (150 men) arrived at the airport.
The Spanish authorities claim that the Nigerian migrants they are deporting are sent back for committing various offences, ranging from drug trafficking to immigration-related offences. However, refugee support organisations maintain that most of the offences are immigration-related, such as overstaying visas or using forged or incorrect travel documents.
The deportees, accompanied by government or Frontex immigration officers and private security guards, are typically received at the Lagos airport by Nigerian immigration officers and other law enforcement officials. Those with no criminal offences (only ‘immigration offences’) are taken away by the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) for further interrogation, and are then transported to the airport’s Hajj Camp, and from there they are expected to proceed to their home towns and cities. Many do not have money or other means of doing so and are left stranded on the streets of Lagos.
Those with criminal offences – and despite having served their sentences in the countries where those offences were committed – are handed over to the Nigerian law enforcement agencies, such as the Nigeria Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), for further interrogation. Many have reported mistreatment and abuse at the hand of police.
Most European countries, including Spain and the UK, use these ‘criminal offences’ as a pretext to deport foreign nationals after they serve their sentences – a secondary punishment that is inherently discriminatory. Although some are serious, the majority of these offences are minor and often a result of discriminatory immigration policies. For instance, shoplifting, drug- and prostitution-related offences are often the result of policies that push migrants into poverty and destitution.
Other common offences include using fake documents to obtain work or open a bank account – again, a result of discriminatory policies that deny asylum seekers and other migrants the right to work in Europe. Many are also caught using false travel documents, either trying to leave the European country concerned after their claims are rejected and they give up on the system, or simply trying to enter the country to seek refuge and safety, which is supposed to be a universal right under international law. The use of this latter ‘offence’ to dismiss asylum claims and detain and deport people has been condemned by many international organisations and immigration judges (see this article, for example).
Many of these deportees are detained for lengthy periods of time until their deportation is effected. In January 2010, the European Parliamentary Assembly’s Committee on Migration, Refugees and Population reiterated that “the detention of foreign nationals convicted of criminal offences… is also inherently discriminatory given that where the states’ own nationals are no longer a serving prisoner and no longer pose a risk, they are released.”
Many of the people deported to Nigeria are victims of organised crime and violence, torture, rape, female genital mutilation, armed conflict and state oppression. Yet, Nigerian asylum applications are easily dismissed by most European countries regardless of their merits or supporting evidence. Indeed, Nigeria continues to be one of the most frequent destination countries for mass deportation flights. This is only possible, of course, due to the ‘generous collaboration’ of the Nigerian authorities, who reportedly send an official from the embassy before every charter flight to issue deportees with travel documents inside detention centres. Nigeria is also one of the few countries in the world that accepts deportees from other nationalities beside its own.
In its 2011 World Report, Human Rights Watch maintained that “episodes of intercommunal violence claimed hundreds of lives, while widespread police abuses and the mismanagement and embezzlement of Nigeria’s vast oil wealth continued unabated,” adding that “perpetrators of all classes of human rights violations enjoyed near-total impunity.” But while state and ‘inter-communal’ violence in Nigeria – such as the killings by Islamist militants in the north and the kidnappings by militants in the Niger Delta – are well documented, what is less known, or less talked about, is the role of multinational oil and arms companies in maintaining this violence.
For instance, both Shell and Exxon Mobil are known to have dealt with Nigerian armed groups to secure their interests in the oil-rich Niger Delta. By providing those groups with money and weapons in return for oil and profits, these companies are complicit in the atrocities committed by them; atrocities that have driven, and continue to drive, many to flee the country fearing for their lives and safety.