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'Death flight' evokes Nazi Germany and Middle Passage
Shackled African asylum seekers tortured, returned to threat of death
By Sarah Towle Posted in Migration Americas on November 24, 2020
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The Trump Administration has stepped up deportations of Cameroonian and other African asylum seekers in flights operated by ICE contractor, Omni Air International, before Joe Biden takes office. Some face almost certain death upon their arrival. The First Solution author Sarah Towle reports.

Remembering the SS St Louis

On May 13, 1939, more than 900 Jews set sail from Hamburg, Germany aboard the SS St Louis. With Hitler’s rise to power, ever-emboldened followers of Nazi ideology were confiscating Jewish homes and burning down synagogues and businesses. In the face of such hate crimes, the refugees determined to seek safe haven in the USA. They were prescient. The Nazi network of more than 1000 camps — from labor to liquidation — was already underway.

The exodus faced an unforeseen hurdle: Concepts such as ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ had not yet been codified, much less defined. There was no Universal Declaration of Human Rights to provide them a legal claim to protection. The US had long-been a global beacon of hope, however, and many had family there. So they steered toward Florida via Cuba, then a temporary transit stop en route to the Land of the Free.

But the Cubans would not let them dock. And their unauthorized arrival in Florida was no less chilly, despite direct appeals to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

After three weeks at sea, and running out of food, the St Louis was forced to return to Europe. It made port in Antwerp, Belgium on June 17, 1939, minus a few passengers, who’d hurled themselves into the Atlantic in fear of what was to come. Another 254 would be among the 6 million Jews rounded up, detained, and deported in boxcars on one-way journeys to death as the Nazis swept across Western Europe.

Echoes of that shameful chapter of American History reverberate now as Trump & Co put an exclamation point on their illegal and amoral immigration agenda. On Veterans Day 2020, as Trump trod upon the graves of patriots, roughly three dozen Cameroonian, Congolese, and Angolans, were expelled from the US, at his bidding.

All had fled persecution — or worse — at home. Many had already spent years in detention centers run by the US Immigration & Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). Most had asylum cases still pending. Everyone had complained, with hunger strikes and other forms of passive resistance, about the discrimination and abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of their American minders.

But that was just a prelude of what was to come. Some were targeted as soon as they landed. Those who made it out of the airport alive are now in hiding.

Seeing the “death flight” take off was, in the words of Joshua Rubin of the watchdog group Witness on the Border, “like watching a boxcar in the sky.”

Omni Air International, LLC, an Oklahoma-based charter company owned by Air Transport Services Group Inc, flies so-called “special high-risk charter” deportation missions for US Immigration & Customs Enforcement (Photo: North Texas Dream Team, Nov 2020)

An American Exceptionalism: Torture

On board the Veterans Day “death flight” all detainees were shackled, making their journey home more like one through the Middle Passage, though in reverse. Their feet were bound in cuffs around the ankles joined by thick chains. Their hands were cobbled together at the wrists and secured tightly to a belt of metal wrapped heavily around each waist.

“It’s a routine,” says Julie Swift of Witness at the Border. “The buses and vans pull up to the runway. The ICE deportation officers get off first. They lay the chains down on the tarmac, and empty the hold of plastic bags, containing the detainees’ few belongings.”

The asylum seekers are then taken off the bus one at a time, their hands already cuffed. “They’re frisked. They’re made to open their mouths so officers can peer inside.” Then they’re fitted with the five-point restraints typically reserved for hardened criminals.

But the only “crime” these people ever committed was to be Black and seeking asylum in Trump’s cruel America.

Eyewitness accounts from the deportees themselves reveal ritual cruelty: Some stood slumped at the shoulders, possibly resigned, possibly drugged. Others sobbed, whether from fear of what is likely to befall them upon their return, or from the pepper spray that was blasted into their eyes when they refused to sign their own deportation papers. One was stripped naked in front of women, shamed into signing. Another was made to watch someone being tasered when naked and wet, as a way to coerce him into falsifying his own travel documents. Indeed, a common refrain repeated to these asylum seekers, was “anyone who doesn’t comply peacefully, we will ask our boys to use the other method.”

Detainees report being choked and beaten and threatened with death. One limped on a swollen leg, injured when a cabal of ICE officers knocked him to the ground and sat on him to cuff him, then dragged him from the detention center. Another held in his face the pain of a finger snapped when ICE deportation officers forcibly stole his prints.

One detainee could not be seen at all, his body encased in a sack, tightly bound, and his face covered by a hood. It must have been fastened too tight for he passed out, falling to his knees on the tarmac. He was removed in an ambulance from the FedEx runway at the Alliance Airport in Fort Worth, TX, an airfield reserved for freight, far away from public view.

The plane’s clandestine location, as well as the lack of a flight plan, suggest that even the operators of Oklahoma-based charter airline, Omni Air International, know that what they are taking part in is reprehensible.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and Freedom for Immigrants agree. In an October 7th complaint, co-signed by six additional immigrant advocacy groups and addressed to ICE, the Department of Homeland Security, and the office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, they restate what should not have to be stated: such acts of coercion and unwarranted physical force are not merely unlawful and abusive, they are tantamount to torture.

Hooding, for example, is a form of torture in violation of the 3rd and 4th Geneva Conventions, which demand that persons under custody be treated humanely. A 2004 US Department of Justice memorandum condemns torture is abhorrent both to American values as well as criminal laws, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2340–2340A, and international agreements, like the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which states:

Torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

— Article 1, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly Dec. 10, 1984.

The Death Flight

Victims are not just men. Women are routinely tortured in ICE custody too. Even female deportees were made to sit in five-point restraints for as many as 16 hours on the Veterans Day Omni Air “death flight.” That’s how long it took to travel from Fort Worth to Douala, Cameroon, with a stop in Dakar, Senegal.

The plane flew on to Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it deposited the Congolese refugees. Then it back-tracked several hours west to Dakar again before reversing course for Luanda, Angola, located just south of Kinshasa.

The repatriated Cameroonians that could be reached for comment state they were not relieved of their restraints the entire 16-hour flight. If that was true for the Angolans, they would have been bound, according to flight data gathered by Thomas Cartwright of Witness at the Border, for 34 hours and 40 minutes.

The passengers were fed, but without the use of their hands: “We had to eat with our faces in our food like dogs.”

Bathroom breaks were at the discretion of the guards. There were two armed officers for every shackled African. They escorted their charges to the toilet, but that’s when any assistance stopped. “…[C]hained on both two legs and hands together on my waist I struggled to move to the bathroom and I was unable to pull down my pant to pee and I wet myself.”

“Matthew,” one of the lucky few pulled off the plane just before take-off, reported that the first to resist deportation was “bagged and tied.” Matthew also planned to put up a fight. He decided to comply on seeing the other man knocked down by seven ICE officers, who sat on his back and pressed his nose into the ground as they “wrapped” him. He screamed for breath, “like George Floyd.” The man’s continued shrieking followed Matthew from the Boeing 767 to the white ICE van, and to prison beyond.

“Mark”, who was “bagged and tied” before being pulled off an October “death flight,” reports that his wrists were cuffed so tight, he is only now, six weeks later, regaining use of his thumbs. He describes being “put in a sack to my chest,” which was then tied tightly about the torso with a belt. “It sounds like a kind of straight jacket,” says his advocate, who prefers to remain anonymous.

One deportee confirms that “bagged” passengers were not “un-tied” until the plane reached Senegal.

The Right to Asylum from Persecution

Many Americans parrot Trump & Co’s rhetoric that there’s a “right way” to immigrate. By that, they mean one should not come in over the wall or through the river or by overstaying a visa. The “right way” is to request asylum from persecution, whether from a “safe third country” or at a recognized US port of entry.

All the tortured “death flight” detainees had done just that. They passed Credible Fear Interviews (CFI) upon arrival in the US, and they should now be living with sponsors — folks who agree to take responsibility for them, while their asylum cases are adjudicated, at no expense to the US taxpayer.

In Trump’s America, however, asylum seekers are either imprisoned by ICE, indefinitely, or forced to wait in Mexico as their cases slowly wind their way through a court system stacked against them. Anti-immigrant appointees, called “judges,” operate under strict quotas dictated by Department of Justice supervisors whose job is to keep positive asylum claims to below 15,000.

In 2019, only 11 of every 10,000 cases filed were successful. More than 1,500 Cameroonians applied in 2020, up from less than 150 five years ago.

Unlike in 1939, however, refugees in 2020 possess the rights to live in freedom and safety, and to seek protection in another country if at risk of harm. Following the horrors of WWII, including the turning back of the St Louis and the extermination of almost 17 million people in the Holocaust, several historic events took place to enshrine the above human rights as freedoms inalienable to all human beings:

First, the 1945–46 Nuremberg Trials brought to justice the major surviving political and military leaders of Hitler’s Third Reich, before a tribunal of international judges from the US, UK, France, and the former Soviet Union. Their trials gave rise to the notions of crimes against humanity and genocide, and concretized the need for an International Criminal Court to step in when States fail.

The trials also launched the international human rights movement, lead by Eleanor Roosevelt, who never got over the guilt of her husband sending the St Louis away. Her efforts resulted in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which among its 30 articles also states: No one has the right to inflict torture, or to subject anyone else to cruel or inhumane treatment.

Not the US. Not Trump. Not Omni. Not ICE.

The Cameroon Genocide

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At least eight children were killed and a dozen wounded when attackers stormed the Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy in the southwestern city of Kumba, Cameroon on Saturday, October 24, 2020 (Photos: by family members via WhatsApp)

As bad as ICE detention is, however, “Luke” says, “I’d rather die in prison in the US than be returned to Cameroon.”

Since late 2017, Cameroon has been embroiled in a bloody conflict — a legacy of its colonial past. The unhappy marriage of an Anglophone minority and a Francophone majority come spectacularly undone under 88-year-old “President-for-life” Paul Biya, who has misruled the country with an iron fist for nearly 40 years.

In 2016, Anglophone lawyers stood up to say, “Enough!” Teachers and students joined their peaceful demonstrations, culminating in weeks of strikes across the professions.

Biya responded by opening fire on protesters, arresting and jailing activists on charges of terrorism. He shut down internet and other communication services in Anglophone areas to stop people from organizing and sharing information. He unleashed security forces, whose excessive use of violence has only increased.

Massacres and purges now rule the day, with civilians constantly caught in the crosshairs. To-date, 720,000 Cameroonians have been displaced and 3.9 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Just last month, on October 24, 2020, at least eight children were killed and a dozen others wounded when attackers, brandishing guns and machetes, stormed a school in the city of Kumba.

One Detainee’s Story

“John”, who comes from Kumba, was among the first to run when his brother was murdered and his mother’s house burned to the ground. He arrived in the US nearly four years ago, after a harrowing journey by land from Ecuador to the US Southern border. He passed his CFI, but instead of being released to his sponsor he was locked up by ICE.

He lost his initial asylum hearing, “because he hadn’t been tortured enough,” according to his advocate, Pat Leach. His case then went into appeal, where it got stuck. Most recently, his attorney filed a habeas petition against the US government for holding John too long.

Perhaps in retaliation, ICE slated him for deportation on the Veteran’s Day 2020 “death flight.” It was the second deportation of African nationals — that we know of — to take off from the US in a month.

“David” fled Cameroon after the military beat his father so brutally he was rendered disabled for life. David’s initial request for asylum rejected, his is now on appeal. As it is still open, he should not be deported. Yet he was slated for “removal” on the Veteran’s Day “death flight.”

Fortunately, his uncle managed to secure the support of US Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). David was pulled off the plane just moments before take-off.

He is saved. For now.


Many of those scheduled for removal, states Van Hollen, “have lost family members in Cameroon at the hands of the police because they dared to seek asylum in the US.” Biya blames the Cameroonian diaspora, not his systematic repression of the Anglophone population, for the country’s civil war. He wants all who fled back so he can make examples of them.

The 57 Cameroonian asylum-seekers expelled on the October 13th Omni Air “death flight” are now either living in hiding, in fear for their lives, or have not been heard from since leaving the US. Direct appeals to Trump & Co by 81 state, local, and national US organizations, calling for deferred enforced departure and temporary protected status for Cameroonians. And on November 16, 2020, Rep. Bass, Karen (D-Ca.) introduced House Resolution 1221, urging the US to uphold its commitments under international treaties related to refugees and asylum-seekers and halt deportations of Cameroonian citizens. So far, these entreaties seem to be falling on deaf ears.

The Veterans Day flight to the African continent was “around the 875th deportation to take place this year,” according to Thomas Cartwright and Karla Barber, who track the flights of ICE-Air contractors for Witness at the Border. Despite the likelihood of the US government spreading COVID-19 throughout the developing world, deportations to Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, India, and Pakistan have only accelerated as 2020 grows long.

Lawyers and advocates from the Alliance in Defense of Black Immigrants call the recent step up in expulsions a “scorched-Earth policy against Black refugees.” Some theorize that it’s an effort on the part of Trump & Co to cover up their crimes against humanity before ICE comes under new management.

Whatever the motive, it’s a net positive for Omni Air’s balance sheet, which was recently awarded $67Million from the CARES Act Coronavirus Relief package — money meant to support struggling US citizens and small businesses. Several reports state that ICE-Air contractors are price-gouging the administration, charging between $11,000 and $35,000 per detainee per flight.

There’s also the possibility that Trump & Co’s latest proposed regulatory changes to US immigration policy, advanced by white nationalist Stephen Miller, raise the standard of proof for asylum seekers to impossible heights, international human rights conventions be damned. Another thumb in the eye of the civilized world by Trump and his henchmen.

From what we witnesses can tell, ICE is planning another round up and deportation of African nationals in December. How do we know? How can we bear witness to Trump & Co’s crimes against humanity from San Diego to Columbus to New York to London?

Well, if I told you that, our seeing would no longer be subversive, would it?

Join us! Help #StopTheDeathPlane! Add your name to our list to receive notification of future direct action campaigns!

Thank you for reading Episode 21 in my travelogue of a road trip gone awry: THE FIRST SOLUTION: Tales of Humanity and Heroism from Trump’s Manufactured Border Crisis, rolling out on Medium as fast as I can write it because it’s Just. That. Urgent. For earlier episodes, click here.

“Let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another.” — Toni Morrison, 1995

Sarah Towle is an award-winning London-based US expatriate author sharing her journey from outrage to activism one story of humanity and heroism at a time. Check out her stories on the Angry Tías and AbuelasRedneck Revolutionary Brendon Tucker and human rights heros Jennifer Harbury and Jodi Goodwin. This is Episode 21 in her travelogue of a road trip gone awry: THE FIRST SOLUTION: Tales of Humanity and Heroism from Trump’s Manufactured Border Crisis, rolling out on Medium as fast as she can write it — because, in Sarah’s words, “it’s Just. That. Urgent.”

Angola Cameroon deportation migration Omni Air International Witness at the Border

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