The Wall Street Journal, January 29, 2001
Lufthansa Agrees to Change Policy On Deportees After Tragic Death
By RHEA WESSEL
Dow Jones Newswires
FRANKFURT -- 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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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 have 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 are
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.
Write to Rhea Wessel at email@example.com