PARIS — The French government has spent nearly 34 million euros since 2006 on leasing private planes to move and deport migrants, a BuzzFeed News investigation has found.
While a number of reports over the years have indicated that the French Interior Ministry has been leasing a single private aircraft that it uses to move asylum-seekers between detention centers within the country, new documents obtained by BuzzFeed News reveal that France has also been leasing several planes to deport asylum-seekers over the last 11 years.
The French government has used a number of ways to deport migrants in the past, including commercial flights, trains, and boats. But the border police have also been hiring smaller chartered planes, manufactured by Beechcraft, from private companies to move small groups of migrants almost on a daily basis. According to BuzzFeed News’ findings, these planes have been running at full capacity for at least a year.
One early morning last month, Ahmad Sadid and four other Afghan asylum-seekers at the Vincennes detention center were woken up by 11 French border police guards.
Hours later, they were escorted to a Beechcraft plane and flown to Stockholm, where Sadid was detained and the rest were deported to Kabul.
"We didn't have water or food and we couldn't use the toilets," Sadid told BuzzFeed News. "The police officers didn't take care of us. They were joking around and taking pictures from the windows."
Sadid is currently in a detention center on the Swedish island of Gotland. As of last week, he was still waiting to know if he'll be deported to Kabul.
"[The Taliban] know who I am," Sadid said. "If I'm sent back to Afghanistan, they'll try to detain me or even kill me."
According to official documents obtained by BuzzFeed News, the French Interior Ministry has made numerous calls for bids from aircraft companies, the first of which dates back to June 2006. According to this first bid, the national police were leasing a plane for "liaison, staff transportation, and cargo missions." No other information was given about these missions. The 12-month contract was awarded to the company Twin Jet and renewed three times, at a total cost of 6,186,860 euros.
The French border force has been leasing small Beechcraft airplanes — which carry up to 19 passengers — to move four or five migrants at a time. Twin Jet, a French regional airline, highlights the advantages of this kind of service on its website: "confidentiality, swiftness, efficiency."
BuzzFeed News tracked several of these flights that operated throughout the European Union from June 2016 to August 2017 using the flights' unique "call signs", which helped identify that they were transporting migrants.
This map was developed by BuzzFeed News using data from ADS-B Exchange, a database that identifies aircrafts in flight using their radio broadcasts. All flights may not be covered, and journeys are not represented in full. All flights made on the same day are represented by a continuous line in red.
The map above shows the destinations most frequently used by the French border force for removing migrants. Italy is the main port of entry in Europe for migrants, and is at the top of the list for French deportations. Because of the Dublin III Regulation of the EU, the first country where a request for asylum is filed is responsible for dealing with them.
According to the official gazette published by the French government, these kinds of deportations using private aircrafts aren’t new. A 2007 Le Monde article mentions the leasing of a Beechcraft plane piloted by members of the French border force. At the time, Jean-Yves Topin, the deputy director of the French national police, told Le Monde that leasing a Twin Jet Beechcraft gave officers more flexibility and independence than a regular airline.
In 2008, a new call for bids was launched. This time, the money was coming from the national police budget for immigration and asylum, rather than from the Interior Ministry. Once again, Twin Jet snatched up the deal, at 3 million euros for one year, which could be renewed for an additional 20 months.
In 2010, the Interior Ministry was looking for an airplane in order to carry out deportations and liaison missions. This time, Chalair Aviation, a company based in the city of Caen, bagged the contract for 3 million euros. An article in Le Parisien reported on the technical problems encountered by the "illegal immigrant plane" at the time. One official close to the 2010 call for bids, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, told BuzzFeed News that the ministry had renewed its collaboration twice with the Normandy-based company.
Twin Jet won the contract for deportations in February 2015. Its planes were provided to the police for the amount of 1.5 million euros. That year, Twin Jet aircrafts were used to clear out the "Jungle" migrant and refugee camp in Calais, as reported by StreetPress in an investigation in October 2015.
Numerous other press reports showed that Beechcraft aircraft were being used outside of the official bidding period. According to Les Inrockuptibles, the French government used the aircraft in August 2010, this time to deport a Georgian family. This confirmed that these aircraft have been in use since 2006, which would bring the total cost for aircraft leases to about 34.8 million euros.
The cost for these deportations could run even higher, taking into account the cost of fuel and of wages for the police agents involved in piloting the aircraft and escorting the migrants. According to French law, every migrant must be escorted by two French border force agents, which means each aircraft is only taking at most 5 or 6 migrants at a time, because the plane can only fly 19 passengers at a time.
"I think you made a mistake with your figures, but I can't really say much more about this," Olivier Manaut, president of Twin Jet, told BuzzFeed News.
But an aviation official who worked on some of these bids for the Interior Ministry and spoke on condition of anonymity said the figures seemed to line up with contracts he was aware of. He refused to give any further details.
BuzzFeed News attempted to contact the General Directorate of Foreigners, which oversees immigration at the Interior Ministry; the communication department of the police; and the spokesperson of the Interior Ministry several times by email and telephone. None of them responded. But according to public documents, the Interior Ministry for the past year has been looking to find solutions to cut costs on renting flights.
This post was translated from French.