Airlines in Australia face increasing pressure over refugees

Activists are condemning Australian airlines for profiting off the deportation of refugees and asylum seekers. 

First reported by Fairfax, Qantas and Virgin Australia are in the sights of human rights activists for their role in the country’s immigration system, which multiple bodies within the UN have heavily criticised for failing to uphold international human rights standards.

The UN Human Rights Committee has long condemned Australia’s refugee policy, particularly the management of offshore detention centres on Nauru and (now-closed) Manus Island, where assaults, sexual abuse, child abuse, and squalid living conditions were documented.

Self-harm is a particular concern, as these locations have seen multiple refugee suicides, and medical facilities on Nauru have proven so inadequate several pregnant women have been flown to Australia for emergency medical treatment.

The Australian government uses Qantas and other airlines to transport asylum seekers for medical appointments, movements between detention centres, and involuntary deportation.

Activists want airlines to stop transporting refugees for the government, according to a statement from the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), and for Virgin Australia to follow the lead of UK affiliate Virgin Atlantic, which pledged to no longer help the British Home Office carry out involuntary deportations. 

Qantas and Virgin could also follow the examples of U.S. airlines American, United, and Frontier, which asked the government to refrain from using their planes to transport migrant children separated from their families. 

Qantas will hear concerns from ACCR and one of Australia’s prominent refugee legal centres, the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS), in a meeting on Friday. 

The groups will reportedly ask the airline to pledge not to transport involuntarily deported refugees and asylum seekers, either back to their original country where they could be subjected to persecution, or to locations of infinite detention, where human rights abuses have been documented including physical and sexual abuse, and inhumane living conditions.

Qantas didn’t sound like it was going to change its policy. “The Government and courts are best placed to make decisions on complex immigration matters, not airlines,” a Qantas spokesman told Mashable. “We appreciate that this is a sensitive issue.”

Virgin Australia issued a similarly neutral response to the calls. “Virgin Australia works with a number of Government organisations to transport passengers for a range of reasons,”  a spokesperson told Mashable. “Virgin Australia complies with Australian Immigration Law and will continue to take advice on this matter from the relevant authorities.”

Calling for “a heightened due diligence process” from Qantas in particular, a signed statement from ACCR wields the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, noting that “the corporate responsibility to respect human rights means taking measures to avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts.”

“We are not talking about business as usual here, ACCR executive director Brynn O’Brien said in a press statement. “We are talking about airlines facilitating, for profit, a system which is out of step with international law and exposes men, women and children to persecution and violence.

“We are talking about airlines facilitating, for profit, a system which is out of step with international law.”

“For a company like Qantas whose brand is so material to its value, it is extremely risky to take on contracts that expose its brand to association with a system that violates human rights.”

Contribution to human rights abuses, ACCR’s statement notes, doesn’t just affect the people the airline is involuntarily transporting — it’s bad for business. And look, if that gets this thing over the line, as opposed to companies remembering refugees and asylum seekers are human beings who deserve to be treated with respect and care, then so be it.

“Contribution to human rights abuses and failure to discharge their international obligations can do damage to a company’s reputation, undermine its social licence to operate, and pose material risks to a company’s financial interests,” reads the ACCR statement.

O’Brien said the activist coalition was actively recruiting Qantas shareholders to join the cause, aiming to take the issue to the Qantas annual general meeting this year.

So, why now? 

Well, thanks to recent changes in Australian refugee policy, protections for asylum seekers and refugees in the country are more insubstantial than ever.

“The human rights of refugees and people seeking asylum are no longer adequately protected by Australian law,” said RACS principal solicitor Sarah Dale in a statement. “In fact, recent changes mean that the Migration Act now deliberately ignores Australia’s international obligations.

“At RACS we have seen cases where people are entitled to protection of their rights under international law, but they can be returned them to harm under Australian law. The gap between Australia’s actions and its international obligations requires urgent attention.”

Australian lobby group GetUp! has thrown their support behind the call, having long championed the related No Business in Abuse campaign against corporations profiting from human suffering in Australia’s detention camps.

“Deporting people to danger should not be a part of the Qantas business model,” Shen Narayanasamy, human rights director of GetUp!, said in a statement.

“With the No Business in Abuse campaign our members have successfully and vociferously campaigned against companies involved in abusing the rights of asylum seekers, and we are willing to do so again.”

Fingers crossed for Friday’s meeting. f26d c8e6%2fthumb%2f00001