Mar 31, 2000

report: "Calls to End Forced Deportations Follow Custodial Death"

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Human rights organisations have been demanding an independent inquiry into the death of a Nigerian asylum seeker who died while being deported and a stop to all forced repatriations.

Switzerland's sixth deportation flight of 2010, scheduled for the evening of Mar. 17 with 16 Nigerians on board, never took off. Among the prisoners was Alex Uzowulu*, 29, whose asylum claim had been previously rejected. According to the cantonal police of Zurich, Uzowulu refused to board the flight and "could only be constrained by the use of force." Uzowulu's arms and legs were tied up and a helmet put over his head and police claim that, thereafter, "he suddenly showed health problems." He was unbound but never revived.

The director of the Federal Office for Migration (FOM), Alard du Boys-Reymond, who happened to witness the deportation later told Swiss Television that the police acted professionally. Eyewitnesses, however, accuse the officers of being brutal and acting "like animals." Following Uzowulu's death, the FOM has temporarily halted further special repatriation flights.

Uzowulu is the third casualty related to forced deportations from Switzerland in 11 years. In 1999, a Palestinian asylum seeker who was bound and gagged with tape suffocated to death. Two years later, a Nigerian asylum seeker died in deportation custody, after police officers pressed him to the ground.

A first autopsy by the Institute of Forensic Medicine of the University of Zurich offered no clear conclusions on the cause of Uzowulu's death. The Nigerian had been on hunger strike for a few days preceding the deportation, the authorities admit. Fellow prisoners, however, claim the young man had refused food for a much longer time.

Du Boys-Reymond said it did not matter that the deportee had been on hunger strike, but that he was declared healthy on the day of deportation. In general, he added, "it should be that only healthy persons can be deported." Christoph Hugenschmidt, speaking on behalf of the human rights group augenauf, accused du Boys-Reymond of hypocrisy. "We have documented dozens of cases where sick and unhealthy persons have been deported," he said.

To the police statement that Uzowulu was listed as as a drug-dealer, Hugenschmidt reacted by saying: "What does that mean? He was never convicted as a drug dealer!" The activist accused the police of slander and defamation in order to condone the Nigerian's death.

Switzerland has not adopted Schengen norms and still detains rejected asylum seekers for up to two years ahead of their repatriation. Cristina Anglet, of the solidarity network Solinetz in Zurich and who regularly visits deportation prisoners at the Zurich airport said that following Uzowulu's death at least 10 of the inmates had gone on a hunger strike. "I visited on Monday (Mar.22). On the fourth floor, where mostly Africans are imprisoned, almost everybody refused food. Additionally, I knew about people on hunger strike on the second floor."

Hugenschmidt is appalled by the authorities' efforts to play down the hunger strike. "Someone may just have died from the consequences of a hunger strike," he said. Several rights organisations such as Amnesty International and various cantonal left-wing parties have demanded an independent inquiry into Uzowulu's death.

Balthasar Glättli, secretary-general of Solidarité sans frontières (Sosf), an organisation promoting migrants' rights, prefers an international body such as the Committee against Torture to investigate. "The department of public prosecution is the wrong body to probe, as its ties with the police are much too close."

As a Schengen state, Switzerland is obliged to implement the European Union's 'Return Directive' according to which it has to set up an effective forced return monitoring system by spring 2011. Amnesty International demands that no forced deportations are carried out without independent monitoring. Sosf's Glättli remains sceptical: "Monitoring only makes sense if the deployed observers are present during the whole process. I'd prefer if deportees were accompanied by lawyers who could legally represent and defend them."

Glättli says that during forced deportation detainees are often trussed up. "The authorities put up with the death of people." Sosf states that the right of individuals to physical integrity, and therefore their protection from potentially deadly deportation procedures, have to be regarded as more important than Switzerland's desire to remove people from its territory.

*UPDATE: There's been some confusion surrounding the identity of the dead Nigerian. 'Alex Uzowulu' may not be his real name. It seems that the 29-year old had used a false name. According to the African Mirror Foundation, his real name is Joseph Ndukaku Chiakwa.

This report was written by Ray Smith and was published here by IPS Inter Press Service.