Jan 21 2019

“Refugees could travel to Europe or America by air. What’s stopping them?”

An article by Saad Hasan for TRT World (the English-language news service of Turkey’s national public broadcasting  network) highlights a life-and-death issue for refugees: Why are thousands of asylum seekers who could afford to buy a plane ticket to Europe or the USA dying every year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea or the Sonoran Desert to reach a country where they can find sanctuary from persecution?

The answer, as we told TRT World, is that, “These deaths of the asylum seekers during migration are a direct consequence of carrier sanctions. Sanctions imposed by governments on airlines for transporting unsuccessful asylum seekers are killing thousands of people a year directly around the world.”

The article notes that, “The Geneva Convention allows an asylum seeker to board a commercial flight even without a visa. But airlines face the risk of paying a fine if that person’s application is rejected and he has to be flown back.”

We’ve raised this  issue repeatedly with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Just last week, we asked the UN Human Rights Committee to include it in its list of issues for the upcoming review of US implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:

An asylum claim cannot be made or adjudicated until after a claimant arrives in a country of refuge. Asylum seekers cannot be required to have any specific documents, and their inability to obtain travel documents from a government from which they arefleeing may be part of the evidence supporting their asylum claim.

A common carrier has an obligation to transport all passengers willing to pay the fare in its tariff.

But the U.S. imposes civil fines on airlines and other carriers that transport unsuccessful asylum seekers. These “carrier sanctions” turn inherently unqualified airline ticket sales and check-in clerks into de facto asylum judges of first and last resort, with a government-imposed financial incentive to err on the side of denial of transport. For asylum seekers, denial of air transportation either acts as a categorical bar to reaching U.S. territory to make a claim for asylum, or leads asylum seekers to use irregular and often fatally unsafe routes and modes of land or sea travel to reach the U.S.

Some other sources interviewed by TRT World suggested that the consequences of “carrier sanctions” could be mitigated by issuance of “humanitarian visas” for asylum seekers. But as we pointed out, “Foreign embassies and airports are closely watched by local police. If someone comes to the embassy seeking asylum and isn’t immediately given sanctuary then they can be subject to additional persecution.”

Solving the problem of deaths in transit doesn’t take a lengthy legislative process like introducing a humanitarian visa. Almost by definition, not everybody who applies will be given such a visa. And any visa will have to be applied for at a consulate or embassy in a country where an asylum seeker may be subject to retaliation for visiting such a consulate.

All it takes to reduce these deaths is a small change in administrative practice: Stop fining airlines when they bring people to a border or port of entry and the people are not admitted, and enforce their duty as common carriers to transport anyone willing to pay the fare in their tariff.

If the country and the airline don’t want the expense of returning failed applicants for asylum, airline regulations could require that an airline must transport passengers without visas if they have purchased a return ticket or a ticket onward to another country.  This is already required for most visitors to the US or the European Union, even if they have visas. This would double the revenue to the airline for each such refugee. For legitimate refugees, most of those return tickets would expire unused, making them free money for the airline — but not risking the lives of refugees by denying them access to safe air transport.

It’s tempting to some people to think of freedom of movement as something “abstract” or important only to the “jet set”. But nothing could be further from the truth. Administrative restrictions like carrier sanctions, and failure to enforce the duties of common carriers, are a life-and-death matter for some of the world’s most destitute and deserving refugees, those who would qualify for asylum if they could only reach a country of refuge.

One thought on ““Refugees could travel to Europe or America by air. What’s stopping them?”

  1. Anyone who wants to apply for asylum in the United States from Mexico can just present themselves at a legal border crossing. There is no need for them to enter the country illegally unless they are a criminal.

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