A video posted on Youtube this week graphically brings home the often degrading nature of forced expulsions of irregular migrants. The footage of a man lying on his stomach on the airport tarmac, his arms and legs tied together behind his back and apparently being gagged was shot by a passenger waiting for flight IB3722 to Dakar at Madrid airport on 15 June. Finally, he is picked up off the ground by two police officers, still tied up, and put in the back of the police van, more like a piece of luggage than a human being. It appears that the pilot of the plane refused to transport a man in such conditions, and other passengers refused to travel with him.
At one point in the film it appears that a police officer rests his foot on the man’s back after roughly rolling him onto his stomach. Such an action is clearly an unnecessary use of force, and the officer in question should be disciplined and/or prosecuted accordingly.
However, what is truly shocking about this film is that most of the actions of the police officers are not unlawful under Spanish guidelines. The dehumanising and brutal procedure you see is in line with Spanish police protocol for forced deportations which, contrary to the recommendations of various Council of Europe bodies, does not explicitly prohibit the use of gags or restraint techniques which may cause positional asphyxiation (i.e. suffocate the person being restrained by holding them in a position which blocks their airways, such as lying on the stomach for a prolonged period of time). The protocol also allows the use of handcuffs, reinforced tape, sedatives, masks and immobilising belts. Such restraint techniques not only increase the risk of suffocation to the person being expelled if used inappropriately, but are also a real security risk during take-off and landing. Nervous flyer? You would be.
States have the right to control who is allowed to enter their territory, and are free to expel those present without the proper authorisation. But this must be done in line with basic human rights standards and respect for human dignity. Amnesty International has repeatedly called on EU countries, including Spain, to ensure irregular migrants and rejected asylum-seekers being forcibly returned to their country of origin are not subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or any excessive use of force. States’ protocols on forced deportations should reflect international human rights standards and be strictly adhered to by law enforcement officials. In fact, the Spanish protocol itself notes that individuals being repatriated should only be restrained in a manner which “does not harm their dignity or personal integrity”. But such wording is meaningless if not respected in practice.
One’s dignity is not the only thing endangered by such treatment : lives can also be lost. On 9 June 2007, almost exactly two years ago, Osamuyia Akpitaye died while being forcibly expelled from Spain to Nigeria. No video is available to show us what happened to him, but witnesses state he was gagged and tied by police officers. He died of suffocation shortly after take-off. Two officers have now been charged with negligent manslaughter and today, two years on, Osamayuia Akpitaye’s family is waiting for a trial date, and justice. The question is, were their actions in line with official protocols? And if so, how long before those protocols are changed?