It was not a usual flight by any sense of the term. More than half the seats on the Airbus A321 were taken by police officers. They were not armed and all wore yellow vests over their civilian clothes. They were accompanying 69 men. The officers had already removed the men’s shoelaces and, as the plane took off, they also cut off the zip ties that bound their wrists together during their transfer to the airplane.
For security reasons, the flight attendants served neither regular meals (plastic cutlery was also forbidden) nor hot coffee, only cold sandwiches and soft drinks.
We left Athens and after a refueling and crew-change stop at Tbilisi, continued on to our final destination: Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore, Pakistan. For the 69 men, it was a one-way trip.
I covered this deportation flight as a journalist in May 2013. Among the Pakistani nationals who were being returned to their homeland, there were men who had spent many years in Greece. Some of them had never got a residence permit during their time in the country, while others had not been able to renew their existing documents. One of them had worked as a fisherman on the Ionian island of Cephalonia before landing a job as a construction worker in Athens. Another had made his living as a tailor.
They were among a larger group that had spent several months inside the Amygdaleza pre-deportation detention center north of the Greek capital.
They had been arrested during a police sweep in the center of Athens and remained in detention, in tough conditions, until their deportation. They were traveling without baggage. Some of them said they were still wearing the clothes they had on at the time of their arrest.
The cost of that flight, around 200,000 euros, was 80 percent covered by the Returns Fund of the European Union. The rest was paid for by the Greek state.
Organizing such flights has never been a simple procedure. The absence of diplomatic channels with some irregular migrants’ origin countries (Greece does not even have an embassy in some of these countries) can seriously delay or even cancel a deportation. Even countries that do have consular authorities in Athens may need more than eight months to issue the necessary documents.
The conservative government has recently been trying to push the issue of returns to the top of its agenda. Its officials have said that any individuals who are not entitled to protection and are found to be here irregularly will be deported. Reality, however, is more complex.