Qantas and Virgin pressured to refuse to take part in removal of asylum seekers | Business

Qantas and Virgin are facing increasing pressure from unions, advocacy groups and the public to refuse to participate in the forced removal of asylum seekers from Australia, as airlines around the world boycott deportations.

But both of Australia’s major carriers have refused to rule out taking part in future deportations.

The issue of corporate co-operation in forced removals came to renewed international attention last month when Swedish student Elin Ersson refused to sit down on a plane at Gothenburg airport, protesting that an Afghan man was being deported “to hell”. She succeeded, and the man was removed from the plane.

Similar protests have been staged in Australia, resulting, in some cases, in criminal charges laid against protesters.

In June in the UK, Virgin Atlantic said it would no longer assist the home office in deporting people classed as illegal immigrants, after growing unease over the wrongful removal of members of the Windrush generation to Caribbean countries, despite their status as British citizens.

In the US, airlines including American, Frontier, Southwest and United airlines have refused to carry immigrant children being separated from their families under that country’s new “zero tolerance” border policies. Pilots on Germany’s national carrier, Lufthansa, have repeatedly refused to fly asylum seekers to countries where they may face danger.

The advocacy group the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) is meeting with Qantas on Friday and is seeking to make representations to Virgin.

The ACCR is arguing both airlines should refuse to take part in forced deportations to countries where people might face persecution or danger: most deportations are to Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Vietnam, where persecution of minorities or political dissidents are well-documented.

ACCR says airlines should also boycott transferring asylum seekers and refugees between places of detention onshore and offshore, arguing Australia’s detention regime breaches international law.

A statement signed by more than 60 representatives of business, unions, human rights organisations and academia argues companies have obligations to respect human rights, and to ignore international legal obligations can damage a company’s reputation and risk its financial interests.

“To discharge their responsibility, airlines should not participate in deportations where there is evidence that the fundamental human rights to an adequate legal process have been denied, as well as where there is a real risk of serious, irreparable harm to an individual.”

The statement is signed by, among others, the former human rights commissioner Gillian Triggs, the Booker prize-winning novelist Thomas Keneally, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, Sharan Burrow, and the president of the ACTU, Michele O’Neill.

“No person should be forcibly removed from Australia into a situation where they face being harmed or killed,” O’Neill told the Guardian. “Airlines must take seriously their responsibility to respect human rights.”

A petition calling on Qantas to refuse to participate in the “involuntary removal” of married Tamil asylum seekers Priya and Nades and their two Queensland-born daughters has attracted more than 13,000 signatures.

“In the past, Qantas has carried out transfers within Australia of asylum seekers about to be deported to danger,” Refugee Action Collective spokesman Chris Breen said. “Asylum seekers deported to Sri Lanka have been imprisoned and tortured.

“A UN report last year described the use of torture in Sri Lanka as ‘routine’. Catholic asylum seekers deported to Vietnam have been harassed, beaten and jailed – despite assurances given to the Australian government. Qantas is an iconic Australian airline that should not be participating in human rights abuses.”

But the Australian government also regularly uses charter flights – at a cost of upwards of $100,000 a flight – to move asylum seekers. The last deportation of Sri Lankan asylum seekers back to Colombo took place on a charter flight.

A spokesman for Qantas told the Guardian: “We appreciate that this is a sensitive issue.

“The government and courts are best placed to make decisions on complex immigration matters, not airlines.”

A spokesman for Virgin Australia said the airline “works with a number of government organisations to transport passengers for a range of reasons”.

“Virgin Australia complies with Australian immigration law and will continue to take advice on this matter from the relevant authorities.”