Lufthansa Tackles an Ethical
Dilemma Over Deportation of Asylum Seekers --- The Death of a Sudanese
Passenger Forces Airline to Rethink Its Policy --- Carrier Is Just One of an
Increasing Number of German Companies That Are Dealing With the Issue of
By Rhea Wessel
The Wall Street Journal Europe
(Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company,
FRANKFURT -- Deutsche Lufthansa AG had more than a security
crisis on its hands after a Sudanese passenger was killed on board flight 558
in May 1999. The German press had begun to pick up on the story of how Aamir
Ageeb was smothered to death by security guards when he resisted being deported
to his homeland.
According to a human rights group, Mr. Ageeb's feet
and hands were bound to his seat, and he was wearing a helmet to keep him from
harming himself while thrashing. Security guards pushed the man's head between
his knees to further constrain him, and he was lifeless when they raised it.
Mr. Ageeb had suffocated to death.
About two weeks after the shocking
incident, Lufthansa's board of management met to discuss the matter. Sitting
around the boardroom table that overlooks the runways at Frankfurt airport,
Nicolai von Ruckteschell, Lufthansa's general counsel, informed Chief Executive
Juergen Weber that German law has a loophole allowing the company to decline
deportations -- if a rejected asylum seeker physically resisted. If a deportee
believes he is being delivered back into a political situation that can mean
death, he may have little left to lose by violently defending himself.
"We asked ourselves, why are we doing this? Why are we carrying such
people?" Mr. von Ruckteschell says. The legal team spoke with Lufthansa
security experts, and executives considered what it must be like for other
passengers to see someone bound and gagged in the seat next to them. It was
immediately clear that Lufthansa needed to use the loophole to form a new
corporate policy, Mr. von Ruckteschell says. Without much further discussion,
the board of management agreed unanimously to stop transporting deportees who
resisted. Only those who didn't resist would be allowed on board.
a tragic death was the genesis of a new corporate policy. "It usually takes a
scandal for companies to begin looking at values management," says Dirk
Gilbert, a professor at the European Business School and author of an upcoming
book on corporate ethics.
Last year, about 80,000 people sought asylum
in Germany, a nation with one of the world's most refugee-friendly laws.
Germany's post-War constitution laid the groundwork; anyone who is politically
persecuted has a right to apply for asylum. Most asylum seekers come from Iraq,
Turkey, Afghanistan and Eastern Europe. And about 20% eventually win the right
to stay, the government says. An estimated 10,000 were returned to their
countries via Lufthansa last year.
For Lufthansa's general counsel, the
decision to use the loophole wasn't one of an ethical nature. "It was a sober
and matter-of-fact decision, and it was a fast one since the management board
was being fully informed of its rights for the first time," says Mr. von
Ruckteschell. A spokesman adds, "It was a clear business decision. We want our
passengers to feel good and secure about flying with Lufthansa."
until the incident, Lufthansa had focused on its legal obligation to transport
any passenger with valid travel papers and a ticket, even if those were
supplied by the German government. Asylum seekers who arrive from countries
deemed safe are often considered economic refugees and sent home on the next
flight back. If there are grounds to believe an asylum seeker is a victim of
political persecution, the person's case will be heard. If it is rejected, and
the decision is upheld by a court, the German government gives the asylum
seeker a period of time to leave the country by his or her choice of
transportation. If the asylum seeker doesn't leave, the government deports the
person, often by plane, according to a spokesman for the German interior
Lufthansa is deeply involved in this chain of events, since
the former national carrier has the most direct flights to Germany. If a plane
from Sudan lands in Switzerland before arriving at its final destination in
Germany, the asylum seeker would have to make his case in Switzerland.
No Human Is Illegal, an international network of antiracist groups that
targets numerous airlines and governments on their deportation and asylum
policies, is calling on Lufthansa to summarily give up transporting deportees.
It claims Lufthansa hasn't done enough by starting the policy of transporting
only those who go without putting up a fight. Some people, including women and
children, aren't strong enough to physically defend themselves, and it's
difficult to monitor whether a person is being forced, the group contends.
Indeed, a German paper recently reported that two rejected asylum seekers
claimed they were given a tranquilizing injection to calm them before they were
forced on planes out of Germany, albeit not on Lufthansa flights.
think Lufthansa should stop deporting on ethical and economic grounds," says
Gisela Seidler, the group's spokeswoman and a human-rights lawyer in Munich.
Ms. Seidler says the damage to Lufthansa's image is much greater than the few
sales generated from deporting asylum seekers.
Lufthansa argues that it
really has no decision to make, since the company is required by law to
transport all ticketed passengers, including deportees. And besides, the
airline says, it offers a more humane way of carrying deportees than what they
might experience on freight planes, buses or ships.
"We don't hold
Lufthansa responsible for Germany's asylum laws, but they're part of the
chain," Ms. Seidler says. The group is also targeting KLM and other European
carriers. Sabena, a Belgian carrier, stopped transporting deportees after a
Nigerian woman was suffocated when police put a pillow over her face while on
board a flight in 1998, the group says. And Swissair banned flying deportees in
manacles after a Palestinian died on a flight in 1999.
The group is
taking Lufthansa to task for declining to turn its policy about deportees into
a written code of conduct and for carrying out any deportations. A spokesman
says the company's policy is crystal clear and it was stated repeatedly in
in-house newsletters and at the annual shareholders meeting. "We don't see the
need to put it in cement. It's clear. It came from the CEO's mouth," he says.
No Human Is Illegal also attended the shareholders meeting, where it passed out
literature depicting Lufthansa's logo with the slogan "Deportation Class."
Activists bound themselves to chairs to demonstrate how they believe some
deportees are still treated.
A number of factors have come together to
cause German companies, including Lufthansa, to deal more readily with the
issue of corporate ethics. When BASF AG pays a settlement in a vitamin
price-fixing scandal, or pharmaceutical firms answer tough questions on
gene-related research, other companies begin their own soul searching. The rise
of multinational, non-governmental groups and the gains they've made in
protesting corporate policies is another factor.
A representative of
Amnesty International, which has spoken out against people being deported into
dangerous situations, is attending the Davos meetings, as is Lufthansa's Mr.
Weber. "We accept that governments have the right to deport people, but we say
that only reasonable force should be used. We don't have any policy related to
what airlines should do, because the captain of the airplane has ultimate
authority," says Amnesty International's Matthew Pringle, who reports on
Central Europe and the western parts of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Pilots do have the last say about who is allowed on board, since
they're ultimately held responsible for the safety of the passengers. A
spokesman for a pilots' association in Germany declines to comment on the
matter. "We stick to Lufthansa's policy on this and stay out of the politics,"
Finally, little guys, or groups of little guys, also have a
loud voice in corporate decision making. Shareholder activism means general
meetings can become hotbeds of debate, with individual and institutional
investors passing judgment on corporate policies. German companies face
particular scrutiny for their business practices, given corporate involvement
in the Nazi regime. And all eyes are focused on the country when reports of
racism emerge. No Human is Illegal has raised the question of whether
non-whites are more often mistreated than others by border police in Germany.
Kadiata Batobo, a 31-year-old Congolese citizen who studied information
science, says he was beaten up by border police after he resisted deportation
on a Lufthansa flight. He came to Germany Jan. 1, 1998, posing as the son of a
Nigerian diplomat. He had been jailed in Congo for political reasons, and
escaped when another inmate, his friend, was shot, he said in French through an
interpreter. Mr. Batobo is living in a home for asylum-seekers in Munich. The
German government gives them a free place to stay and food while they wait for
their cases to be heard.
"We find it absolutely absurd that people are
deported today, when governments are loudly bemoaning a shrinking labor force.
In today's globalized world, where capital and information flows freely, we
think it's absurd that people can't move around freely," Ms. Seidler says.
A host of groups deal with the theme of corporate ethics in Germany,
including the European Business Ethics Network, the German Network for Business
Ethics, the Institute for Business and Social Ethics, universities and
consultancies. Also, a group of senior business executives regularly meet to
discuss ethical issues in the spa town of Baden-Baden.
discussion on ethics may have inadvertently helped Mr. Batobo. He had exhausted
his legal right to stay in Germany and was headed home into a precarious
situation. By physically defending himself against deportation, and because
Lufthansa implemented the new policy, his life very well may have been
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