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Finland’s history of forced returns: Deporting conscientious objectors and a sedated family

A recent furore over since-refuted reports that Finnish officials planned to deport an Afghan family to Kabul has ignited debate about the ethics of returning asylum seekers to potential conflict areas. Yle delved into its archives to dust off decades-old deportation cases involving conscientious objectors facing persecution and forcibly-drugged family members.

Oleg Kozlov deportation
In the 1990s, Finland deported two Soviet conscientious objectors who risked political persecution. At right is Oleg Kozlov, who was later sentenced to five years in a labour camp for his attempted defection. Image: Yle

In early April, demonstrators gathered at Helsinki-Vantaa airport, the Pasila police station and downtown Helsinki to protest the deportation of rejected asylum seekers back to the Afghan capital Kabul. The protests were ignited by rumours that an Afghan family had been on the manifest of the deportation flight. Police later confirmed that while the family had been detained for repatriation, they were later released when it emerged that their asylum appeals were still being processed.

The protests turned on concerns that people fleeing violence were being returned to conflict zones. Last year Finland changed its guidance for assessing asylum applications from Somali, Iraqi and Afghan nationals, making it easier to reject asylum claims and therefore deport people back to those countries. However opponents point out that these countries are still considered unsafe for visitors.

Controversial deportation decisions are not a new phenomenon. Yle's Finnish-language news travelled back in time to relive deportation dramas that played out in 1990 and 2002.

Conscientious objectors flee Soviet Russia

On September 9, 1990, Soviet national Oleg Kozlov hijacked an airliner en route from Riga to Murmansk and ordered the pilot to land in Stockholm, Sweden. However the plane unexpectedly taxied into Helsinki, striking a fateful blow to the young Soviet’s plan to defect to the West.

Image: Yle

Five days later, Helsinki-Vantaa airport received another unscheduled flight. This one had been commandeered by Mikhail Varfolomeyev, who was also trying to get to Stockholm.

Both men later applied for asylum in Finland, claiming persecution in their native Soviet Union for their refusal to serve in the military. At the time the Soviet Union was embroiled in war in Afghanistan and conscientious objectors were labelled as mentally ill and as "invalids", and were stripped of many of the rights accorded to ordinary citizens. They were not allowed to marry, hold jobs, study or leave the country.

Oleg Kozlov tried to force the captain of an Aeroflot flight to land in Stockholm, but ended up in Helsinki on September 9, 1990. Image: Yle

Finnish politicians found themselves caught between a geopolitical rock and a hard place. On the one hand, back in 1974, Finland had already agreed with the Soviets that hijack cases such as Kozlov and Varfolomeyev would be immediately repatriated. Moreover, they were guilty of the serious crime of hijacking.

On the other hand, it was clear that they were fleeing political persecution. Just before the first flight landed in Helsinki, Finland had ratified the Council of Europe’s Human Rights Agreement, which prohibited persecution, torture and other human rights abuses.

The convention was also interpreted to forbid the repatriation of individuals to countries where they would face such treatment. As such, complying with the Soviets would portray Finland as kowtowing to the will of its eastern neighbour.

Finland returns objectors to Soviet Union

Finland decided not to grant the Soviet defectors asylum. According to Yle, there are many similarities with current events. Officials justified Kozlov's deportation by pointing to his rejected asylum application, which was further endorsed by the Supreme Court.

On the basis of that ruling, Interior Minister Jarmo Rantanen and Justice Minister Tarja Halonen argued that Kozlov did not face any threat of persecution in the Soviet Union. When Kozlov heard of the ruling, he cut himself, in much the same way that some asylum seekers have taken to self-harming in reception centres today. Varfolomeyev’s asylum application was denied one month after Kozlov’s.

Once back in the Soviet Union, Kozlov was sentenced to five years in a labour camp. Varfolomeyev, meanwhile, was handed a four-and-a-half-year suspended sentence. Kozlov served his sentence in one of five labour camps in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Latvia. However Latvia gained independence shortly afterwards and Kozlov was released from prison.

Oleg Kozlov_1990
Finland denied conscientious objector Oleg Koslov's plea for asylum and deported him back to the Soviet Union. Image: Yle

Because of the precedents set by the Kozlov and Varfolomeyev cases, all of a slew of other asylum seekers who subsequently came to Finland to escape alleged persecution were denied asylum and summarily returned to the Soviet Union.

Finland drugs and deports Ukrainian family

In 2001 a Ukrainian family, the Shimanskyis, sought asylum in Finland, but was refused. The family appealed the decision, but that was also turned down.

Officials first attempted to deport the family in August 2002, but failed because family members put up a fierce resistance to the deportation effort. Police renewed their efforts in October, this time using more forceful methods.

Police drugged the entire family – mother, father and two children aged 11 and 12 – with a sedative. The substance was injected by a nurse assisting police in the operation. According to the family, they were not informed of what substance was administered, in spite of their queries. Under the effects of the sedation, the family was transported from an asylum seeker reception centre in Oravainen to Katajanokka in Helsinki, before being flown to the Ukrainian capital Kiev.

The case was kept under wraps until a delegation from the Council of Europe’s anti-torture committee visited Finland in September 2003. At the time the then-director of the Katajanokka detention unit let it slip that asylum seekers had been sedated. The committee condemned Finland’s actions in a report that it submitted later on, setting off a heated national debate.

Police commissioner Jaakko Heinilä addressed the controversy in an Yle A-talk programme in 2003 and MPs demanded an explanation. A report revealed that the Shimanskyis were not an isolated forced-drugging case. It later emerged that Finland had opted to sedate other individuals due for deportation in previous years.

In a report on the Shimanskyi case, police admitted to drugging the family for their forced return. They justified the act by pointing to the family’s "self-destructive behaviour". The nurse who administered the injections received a written reprimand from the National Board of Medicolegal Affairs. The nurse countered by appealing the warning, but her appeal was overturned in a 2005 decision handed down by the Supreme Administrative Court.

Current police board guidelines forbid the use of sedatives or other drugs to facilitate forced returns.

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