Airlines have a moral responsibility to get refugees to safe harbor—despite Trump’s ban

Time for airlines to step up.
Time for airlines to step up.
Image: Reuters/Kieran Doherty
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In the wake of US president Donald Trump’s refugee ban on Friday afternoon, airlines have found themselves at the center of a political firestorm. Trump’s executive order, which bars citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, prompted airlines to turn away refugees trying to board international flights to the states. But in following Trump’s order, airlines are ignoring international human rights standards.

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlines the right of individuals to “seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” For this right to be fully enjoyed, however, businesses have a responsibility to support the safe passage of asylum seekers. If a person claiming refugee status has purchased a transportation ticket but lacks appropriate documentation to legally enter the country, the company must honor the ticket in order to meet the requirements of Article 14. In doing so, the company rightfully places the burden of determining the authenticity of the asylum-seeker’s claim on the host government, rather than the company’s staff.

But airlines do not always follow this procedure—particularly in the wake of a 2001 European directive that makes carriers, including airlines, responsible for the cost of repatriating people who are turned away at EU borders. This directive, which technically excludes those seeking asylum, incentivizes airlines to bar passengers lacking appropriate documentation from boarding.

In the absence of safe passage options, such as air travel, refugees may be forced to turn to risky alternatives. Syrian refugees seeking safety in Europe, for example, have increasingly turned to dangerous water crossings, relying on smugglers who, after charging exorbitant fees, often use unsafe inflatable rafts to make the perilous journey. The result was over 3,740 deaths in 2016 alone.

And so, despite Trump’s executive order and the EU’s 2001 directive, airlines have a moral imperative to help asylum seekers. Here are three things they should do in the coming days and weeks:

Ensure passengers reach safe harbor. If a passenger claims asylum, airlines have a responsibility to ensure that the passenger can make his or her claim to a border official. That may require working with the passenger to select an alternative destination than the US. For example, Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has said that Canada remains open to receiving refugees, fulfilling its duty to protect international human rights.

Collaborate with other airlines and refugee advocates. Airlines should partner with each other to ensure that asylum-seekers have access to flight routes from their home countries to a host country where they can claim asylum. In addition, airlines should partner with refugee advocates, including the UN Refugee Agency, to understand how they can best support the safe passage of refugees. This may include partnerships with refugee organizations to help cover the repatriation costs of asylum-seekers who barred entry in Europe. It could also involve ongoing support to airlift refugees to safety, as Air Canada did in collaboration with the International Organization for Migration.

Use their leverage to advance refugee rights. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights expressly states that companies are expected to use their business leverage to fulfill their human rights responsibilities. The mission of all airlines is to support safe transport. So individual companies should publicly state their support of international human rights, as United Airlines has done, and push governments to meet their national duty to protect the rights of all people, including refugees.

Companies in other sectors have been successful in driving policy change that supports human rights, such as when nine CEOs pushed back against a law discriminating against LGBT Americans passed by then-Indiana governor Mike Pence. By adding their voices to the condemnation of the refugee ban and repatriation fees, airlines may too contribute to meaningful policy action in support of refugee rights.