Deportees to Nigeria treated in ‘inhumane and degrading’ way

An attempt to transport people back to Nigeria abused their rights, it is claimed

On a dark and chilly winter’s evening, a charter flight took off from Dublin Airport for a destination in the sun.

It was December 15th, 2010, and the 14 men, eight women and 13 children on board had snatched little or no sleep since the early hours of the previous morning.

This was no holiday fever, however; the 34 Nigerians and one child with Irish citizenship were accompanied by about 45 officers with the Garda National Immigration Bureau (GNIB), who were on board to ensure that they left Ireland for good.

As several of the 35 on board would recall later, many had received no proper food, apart from bottled water, sandwiches and crisps, for hours before the boarding. They had been collected by GNIB officers from various locations, given little time to pack, had been driven to the airport and asked to surrender their phones.


Some of the children had been taken directly out of school; others living in direct provision centres or homes beyond Dublin were woken from their beds. One five-year-old boy who had been born into direct provision here clutched a cardboard Santa Claus picture in his hand.

A woman who was believed to have resisted her removal was handcuffed and appeared to the other deportees to be in a sedated state before being taken on the flight with her four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son. She was still in her night clothes, and one of her children was in pyjamas, with no jacket, say witnesses.

Handcuffed mother

They described how four officers lifted the woman into the plane, accompanied by her bewildered and distressed small children. They described how she was placed in a seat, still handcuffed, and how restraints were secured around her chest and legs.

The other passengers on the Boeing 767-300, including a man on crutches, were told they could not move from their seats without the permission of a GNIB officer. When using the toilet, they were told they could not close the door. One officer, visibly holding handcuffs according to several of the deportees, walked up and down the plane.

The flight, which took off at 8.10pm, had been co-ordinated by Frontex, the EU border control agency. It landed at 2am local time in Athens, Greece.

Among those also on board were two people who were being deported from France, three from Holland, nine from Norway, 11 from Britain, six from Germany, and one each from Luxembourg and Poland. Only the Irish group included children, one an Irish national.

“The plane was very old, very messy,”according to one of the group in a series of testimonies given to the Irish Refugee Council (IRC).

Cramped conditions

“The seats were so tight. My body ached,” he said. “You can hardly eat your sandwich on the plane. And the smell in it!”

The Athens stopover was meant to be brief, to refuel and to collect 24 deportees from Greece and six from Austria before flying on to Lagos.

For two hours, the plane sat on the runway, and the passengers, including the children, were prevented from using toilets. One five-year-old boy among the group of Irish deportees wet himself.

Two older boys, aged 11 and 13, were told to urinate into water bottles while GNIB officers looked on, according to the IRC testimonies. A decision was finally taken to disembark.

The passengers were escorted to a terminal building. The woman in handcuffs was “placed on the floor of the bus” and “surrounded” by officers en route to the terminal, one of the group recalled.

Food and drink was provided after midday – crisps, small bread rolls and water. The deportees from other countries, all adults, had been offered breakfast beforehand. One female deportee told the IRC that she gave a female GNIB officer money and asked if she would buy food for her children – this was corroborated in several of the IRC testimonies. According to them, the officer said she had no permission to do so.

Some 14 hours after landing in Athens, the group was told they were being flown back to Dublin. The winter of 2010 was already proving to be one of the coldest in decades. When the plane landed, they were taken to Balseskin direct provision centre in Finglas, Dublin, where they remained for four days with no access to running water due to freezing weather.

The passengers were told they would still face deportation in the new year – as they did, in almost all cases. In the interim, an analysis by the IRC of the testimonies it had recorded prompted it to call for an inquiry, while other non-governmental organisations working with refugees noted that not all of those deported had fully exhausted their attempts to secure asylum in Ireland.

The IRC concluded from the evidence taken that officers of the GNIB had “conducted themselves in a manner which led to the inhumane and degrading treatment of some of those on the flight, contrary to article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights [ECHR]”.

In a letter to then minister for justice Dermot Ahern on December 22nd, 2010, the IRC said it would appear the officers’ conduct “violated the physical and moral integrity of those being deported, some of who were children, contrary to article 8 of the ECHR”.

It said officers had failed to have regard for the health and welfare of children, contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“It is disturbing to note that, despite the fact that there were Nigerian nationals on the charter flight from other European countries, it was only the group from Ireland which included children,” the IRC said.

It also informed the minister that a formal complaint about the treatment of the mother of two young children who had been physically restrained and allegedly sedated, causing distress to her children and those who witnessed it, had been lodged with the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) on December 20th, 2010.

“We appreciate that you may wish to proceed with the deportation of these individuals as soon as possible on the grounds that their deportation orders remain valid,” the IRC wrote to Mr Ahern. However, it said an investigation was imperative, and the individuals should be allowed to remain in the State to give evidence to same.

There was no ministerial inquiry. The GSOC complaint was deemed admissible, an investigation took place and the file was closed. GSOC will not comment on the outcome, as it says it does not comment on individual cases.

In a response to written Dáil questions on the treatment of the deportees tabled by three TDs – Pat Rabbitte (Lab), Finian McGrath (Ind) and Caoimhghín Ó Caoláín (SF), Mr Ahern said he had been advised that “every effort was made to provide the persons on board the flight with appropriate refreshments and other facilities”.

“By its nature, enforced deportation is a difficult process for everyone involved,” Mr Ahern said, adding his department was reviewing the operation in conjunction with the GNIB and Frontex and would “if appropriate and reasonable, put revised practice in place with a view to minimising the risk of this occurring again”.

The minister for justice told the Dáíl that “none of the individuals on the flight in question took up the option of voluntary return”.

However, the IRC had interviewed one woman on the December 15th flight who had already booked a flight for February 2011 as she wanted to leave voluntarily. When she had presented her tickets to the GNIB, it had, as the IRC noted, “insisted that her forced deportation” had to proceed.

It also emerged that the woman who had been restrained had missing items, including cash, a bank card and her GNIB card, passports, her marriage certificate, her son’s birth certificate and her driving licence.

It would take months to get the items back, after a solicitor’s letter sent by the IRC – and the cash was never returned.

Correspondence between the IRC and the GNIB indicates that efforts were made to trace the woman’s belongings. The GNIB wrote on April 19th, 2011, to say that the Greek immigration authorities had handed over property to a member of An Garda Síochána on February 7th, 2011, and some of it matched the missing belongings.

Missing money

“However, the sum of cash to which you refer in your aforementioned correspondence is not included in the said property,” it said,and pointed out that it was continuing to attempt to make contact with the owner – and asked the IRC to assist.

The woman, who had been living in direct provision in Mosney, Co Meath, before the deportation, was subsequently granted leave to remain in the State.

Frontex told the IRC that its mandate was limited to co-ordination and it “cannot set any rules for flights operated by member states”. It confirmed that there was one Frontex observer, one representative from the air partner company and two doctors on board.

In a response to The Irish Times, Frontex confirmed that the flight to Nigeria had been cancelled after the technical breakdown in Athens.

“Some of the returnees (namely from Austria, Germany and Holland) went to Vienna from where they travelled to the above mentioned countries, while the remaining returnees were flown directly from Athens to Dublin,” it said.

“They were accompanied by the escorts and medical staff. Moreover, a Frontex representative was present on board of that flight,” it said.

“In all cases, the authorities of the EU member states returning the migrants are obliged to report to Frontex of any incidents including the use of force (handcuffing would definitely have to be mentioned),” it said.

“Similarly, sedation, which according to the Frontex code of conduct would have to be prescribed by a medical doctor, would have to be reported to Frontex via the organising member state. No irregularity was reported from that flight,” it said.

It noted that its own code of conduct manual for joint returned operations is currently under review.

Asked by The Irish Times if it could outline the details of its own review, the Department of Justice said it was in "regular contact with the GNIB to review practices and procedures, and did so after this particular operation", but "for security reasons the results of reviews are confidential".

IRC chief executive Sue Conlan said that her organisation recognised the right of the Government to carry out deportations.

Ireland has a split application system – asylum, subsidiary protection and leave to remain are all separate and dealt with in order if the earlier ones are refused. So the deportation order comes immediately if the last one – leave to remain – is refused and there is then no opportunity to leave voluntarily or avail of the assistance of the International Organisation for Migration, which has a base in Dublin.

However, the accounts from the 2010 “failed flight”, along with the separate experiences reported in this series, warranted a review of the way deportations are conducted which, she said, was long overdue.

Persecution and harm

“Poor-quality decisions on asylum and subsidiary protection claims in the past have meant that people who are in the deportation process are still at risk of persecution or serious harm,” she said.

“In addition, the delays in reaching a final decision on a ‘leave to remain’ application mean that people have been in Ireland a long time, with children born here or in school, and deportation is rarely appropriate at that stage.

“The way in which deportation is carried out is inhumane. Deportation has a particularly bad resonance with Irish people, and most people, if they knew the reality, would be opposed to it.” Series concludes