Want to stop refugees from dying at sea? Let them fly


The first time I saw the picture of Alan Kurdi’s little body lying face down on a beach of Bodrum, it was on the front cover of a Belgian newspaper I was reading on a plane flying from Brussels to Turkey.

It seemed tragically ironic that I was making the opposite journey to the one Alan’s family had attempted just the day before.

However, I didn’t have to worry about hiding in truck containers, boarding overcrowded boats, escaping police or being mistreated by ruthless smugglers.

By virtue of having the ‘right’ passport, I was sitting comfortably on a plane, being served wine and warm food, and watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster, all for a fraction of the price paid by Syrian refugees trying to make it to Europe.

Why couldn’t Alan’s family – and other refugee families – be treated equally?

Like me, you may have wondered why nearly 3,000 refugees and migrants have died in the Mediterranean Sea this year alone, while hundreds of thousands more are risking their lives to reach Europe, instead of just boarding a safe and convenient plane straight to their country of destination.

It’s not the cost of the airline ticket that’s prohibitive. Syrian refugees, for example, pay up to US$3,000 to smugglers – far more than the average cost of a plane ticket.

In most cases, the governments of these migrants and refugees are not trying to stop their people from travelling abroad either.

The answer lies, to a large extent, in the 2001 European Union Directive 2001/51/EC (the so-called “Carrier Sanctions Directive”), which supplements some provisions of the Schengen Agreement of 1985.

Article 3 of the Directive states that: “Member States shall take the necessary measures to oblige carriers which are unable to effect the return of a third-country national whose entry is refused to find means of onward transportation immediately and to bear the cost thereof, or, if immediate onward transportation is not possible, to assume responsibility for the costs of the stay and return of the third- country national in question.”

In other words, airlines flying to any of the member states bear the responsibility of checking that passengers have the correct documents and visa requirements to travel to the country of destination. Failure to do so can result in important financial losses for the air transport industry, as Article 4 of the Directive insists that the penalties shall be “dissuasive, effective and proportionate”.

However, the same Directive specifies that its application “is without prejudice to the obligations resulting from the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.”


The privatisation of refugee protection

In effect, the Carrier Sanctions Directive has externalised and privatised something that is, fundamentally, a state prerogative.

A study conducted by the European Parliament argued that carrier sanctions are “not without risks for asylum-seekers, who are quite likely to be refused ticket sales because they do not meet the requirements laid down by the airlines or ferry companies, which are anxious not to be penalised by the country of destination…This filtering technique is all the more problematic as no legal alternative is offered to those who need to flee their country urgently but do not meet the conditions laid down.”

“Penalties for carriers, who assume some of the control duties of the European police services, either block asylum-seekers far from Europe’s borders or force them to pay more and take greater risks to travel illegally.”

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) also acknowledges that “transport companies will continue to comply with the rules as long as it is more economically beneficial to avoid a fine by not allowing a passenger to travel rather than let a potential asylum seeker travel and risk making the wrong decision and incur a fine as well as the costs of repatriation.”

So while EU leaders pledge to fight smugglers and stop migrants and refugees from dying, there is no talk whatsoever about possibly the most effective way to crush a growing illegal trade and to alleviate the migration death toll: the repeal of Directive 2001/51/EC. Or, at least, its suspension for country nationals from Syria, Eritrea and Iraq – the three countries with the highest percentage of successful asylum claims.

Opponents to this solution might argue that this will create a ‘pull’ effect, meaning that if the journey becomes ‘too easy’, then far more refugees will come to Europe.

This could not be further from the truth. If anything the news coverage has proved in the last few months, it is that people fleeing war and persecution will do anything to bring their families to safety. The fear of crossing borders on inflatable boats will not stop them.

All the Syrians I met share a deep love for their country and wish for nothing more than to stay at home in peace. But between the bombs of Assad’s army, the medieval tactics of the so-called Islamic State and the incredible failure of the international community to do anything about the war, many Syrians are faced with the terrible choice of making the risky journey to safety or staying at home and risking death.

So why not ease their passage and make sure they can seek refuge safely?

Dispatching customs officials to the first countries of entry for asylum seekers – Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan in the case of Syrians – could contribute to this effort. Several analysts I spoke to said that reforming the Carrier Sanctions Directive is politically difficult and sensitive. Yet, they also stressed that it should be taken into account when discussing new ways of ensuring safe and legal access for refugees to the EU territory, along with other urgent measures, including an increase of humanitarian and work visas delivered by embassies of EU member states and the acceleration of the UNHCR’s resettlement programs.

These are desperate times. Saving lives demands urgent consideration for new ways of dealing with EU migration policy. Only then can we hope to never again see the picture of a dead child who drowned just a few kilometres away from Europe.