More than 300,000 refugees and migrants have made the perilous crossing to Europe by land and sea so far this year. A journey by air would be far safer, and cheaper than the exorbitant reported sums demanded by smugglers to organize crossings. Yet for a variety of reasons, actually getting on a plane has proved impossibly difficult for most fleeing conflict.
A team of Swedish entrepreneurs is in the early stages of trying to solve that by creating a not-for-profit carrier called Refugee Air, which will charter planes or partner with existing airlines to ferry refugees to Europe from areas of unrest.
The reason such a thing needs to exist is that, amid the current crisis, most airlines have opted to bar all passengers without proper entry documents for their destination country. If it’s an airline’s choice whether to let potential asylum seekers onto an airplane, Refugee Air’s founders reason, why not create an airline committed to doing just that? “These policies push refugees into the hands of smugglers who take advantage of their desperation,” said co-founder Emad Zand said in a statement. “We can’t just sit and watch people die. We’re going to show that it doesn’t have to be this way.”
Even asylum seekers who have the money for a ticket and are able to reach one of the commercial airports operating in their region have been stymied by an obscure European Union law that has quietly placed their fates in the hands of airline employees—despite the law’s provision that refugees be allowed to pass.
Under this 2001 European directive, an airline that lets someone on a plane without proper entry documents for the destination EU country has to pay the passenger’s repatriation costs if they’re turned away, though the “financial penalties do not apply to cases where the non-EU national is seeking international protection”—in other words, if the person is a refugee or asylum seeker.
The heady task of evaluating refugee and asylum claims is supposedly reserved only for governments or the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, but in practice, this directive shunts that responsibility onto gate agents. Understandably unprepared for the role, most airlines have simply opted to deny boarding to all passengers without proper entry documents.
“It is this directive that is the reason for so many refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea,” said Prof. Hans Rosling in a short YouTube lecture explaining why refugees can’t take the cheaper, safer, faster route to Europe via plane.
In comparison to the seemingly intractable geopolitical causes of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, the carrier question appears to many as a factor that could actually be fixed. To make flying into Europe possible, some have suggested refugee travel documents or humanitarian visas be issued at small consular outposts in places like Bodrum in Turkey.
The hashtag #LetThemFly was used to flag the issue at a 90,000-strong demonstration in support of refugees in London on Sept. 12, and was among protestors’ four key demands.