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Monitors of forced asylum-seeker returns witness strong emotions, question rejection criteria

Asylum seekers who are rejected and then forcibly returned are often accompanied by a so-called forced return monitor who is on hand to see they are treated humanely during the return journey. Two monitors told Yle about their experiences.

Ihmisarvoisen maastapoistamisen valvoja.
Image: Markku Pitkänen / Yle

When asylum seekers’ applications are rejected in Finland, the authorities require that the applicant returns to their country of origin. A voluntary return is always the first choice, but sometimes the process leads to a forced expulsion from the country. Last year, Finland deported over 6,000 people.

So-called forced return monitors accompany the rejected asylum seekers on the journey, to ensure they are treated appropriately. For instance, they might arrive at the Joutseno reception centre and accompany the person in question all the way to the final destination in Afghanistan.

Senior officers Päivi Keskitalo and Pirjo Kruskopf regularly monitor forced returns on behalf of Finland's Non-Discrimination Ombudsman.

People working as monitors are obliged to remain silent about the police work they witness, and photos are not allowed of the monitors or the other persons involved during the return journeys. All of these precautions are intended to protect the rights of the people involved.

Returns of families with small children concerning

Senior officer Keskitalo says the forced returns they witness are often very moving. Some returnees strongly resist the return, while others weep.

"The appropriateness of some of the decisions is hard to understand sometimes, for example, when a family with small children, where both parents have found work and the children have started school is rejected. Even so, a decision has been made that the requirements for a residence permit haven’t been fulfilled," she says.

She is also concerned about the situation after the return has been carried out. When happens after the repatriated asylum seeker is turned over to the host country authorities?

"None of us in Finland know what kinds of conditions these people are being returned to. This is very relevant when the destination countries are among the key conflict areas in the world right now: Iraq, Afghanistan and maybe even Somalia in the future," Keskitalo says.

Upholding human rights

Her colleague, senior officer Pirjo Kruskopf says some of the people being returned cooperate with the police, but others resist.

"There are strong emotions at play. People cry. It is very hard to see families returned if the situation for them in their homeland is very difficult," she says.  

The forced return monitors complete a report on each case, verifying that the returns fulfil human rights principles and that police do not resort to undue use of force. Cooperation between the police and the monitors is almost always very good.

"Finnish police understand that it is about the legal rights of the persons being forcibly returned and the legal rights of the police. The monitoring also nixes any unfounded accusations of excessive use of force. It’s about government operation transparency," says Kruskopf.

Mouth can’t be covered

Administrators may not interfere in the events in any way during the return journeys. Their task is to draw up a report by which the police can be improved. In extreme cases, the forced return monitors can register a complaint with the parliamentary ombudsman.

The police cannot resort to unnecessary use of force, but medication of the returnees is also monitored closely. For example, the monitors make sure that people with illnesses get medicine.

Using medication to ease the return process against a person’s will is strictly prohibited. This means that sedatives can only be used with the returnee’s permission. Keskitalo says that the mouth of a person who is protesting their return also cannot be blocked so as to interfere with that person’s breathing.

"The police should try first and foremost to get a handle on the situation by talking. Use of force that makes it difficult to breathe is strictly prohibited. This can be traced back to an incident in 1991 when 17 people died on a forced return flight from Europe, most of whom were asphyxiated by improper use of force," she explains.

Forced return flights can be either nationally organized or so-called Frontex missions.

"Return flights organized on the national level include no authorities or returnees from other countries. Joint return flights organised by the European border patrol agency Frontex often gather several groups of people from various countries, in addition to authorities representing different countries," says Kruskopf.

Germany requests monitoring assistance

Forced return monitors work under Finland’s Non-Discrimination Ombudsman Kirsi Pimiä. Monitoring of forced returns has been one of the office’s tasks since 2014.

And there’s plenty of work. The number of forced returns in Finland has shot up in the last two years, and the police are planning thousands more yet in 2017, as negative asylum decisions are implemented, according to Pimiä.

A new Frontex directive also came into effect at the start of the year, which makes monitoring compulsory on Frontex’s joint return operations.

"Frontex-funded flights must have a monitor from an EU member state on board. Some of the countries in the European Union have not yet organized a monitoring system and have asked for help from other countries. Due to our scarce resources, we haven’t been able to help out on other countries’ flights, but a situation like this could soon present itself," Pimiä says. 

One of the EU member states that has asked for monitoring its forced returns is Germany.

"Let’s hope Germany will organise a system of its own soon. There are so many people that will need to be returned from there."

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