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 Corporate Ethics
By Rhea Wessel
Dow Jones Newswires

The Wall Street Journal Europe
(Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

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.

Thus, 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.”

Up 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 ministry.

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.

“We 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,” he says.

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.

This nationwide 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 saved.

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