Tag Archives: Austria

The privatisation of refugee policy


Earlier this week, Sweden celebrated “Raoul Wallenberg Day” in memory of the businessman turned diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from Nazi extermination in Hungary by issuing real and then false papers. He was in modern day parlance a “people smuggler” although certainly one on the right side of history, when most in his government and in the wider business world did little, at least initially. We now celebrate the Oscar Schindlers, Nicholas Wintons and Raoul Wallenbergs but at their time they were exceptional – and all breaking the law and in a climate where Jewish refugees were hardly welcome anywhere.

Yesterday, Hungarian police arrested drivers of a lorry abandoned on a motorway in Austria containing the decomposing bodies of 71 migrants and refugees (we might never know which they were). The Dublin Convention (the requirement to claim asylum in the first EU state reached) would have kept these migrants in Greece – safe from persecution perhaps but not destitution. This is why travel documents are routinely destroyed by migrants, their smugglers or traffickers – the unknown are hard to trace. These lorry drivers in Hungary are no heroes, in fact they have committed an unspeakable crime, but the lines of morality on Europe’s current irregular migration crisis are no clearer cut than they were at other times in history. It is not easy for businesses (lorry drivers, shipping, airlines, farmers and so on) to know how to respond in an almost complete vacuum of political leadership (with the very honourable exception of Chancellor Merkel in Germany). Criminal networks move in to exploit the desperate, but with no legal alternatives for refugees aren’t we in fact guaranteeing traffickers an ever-growing market? And in the meantime, should it not be our policy makers and not just lorry drivers upon which we target our anger?

There is no perfect solution to the increasing irregular flows of desperate people, but a common European approach to managing asylum claims if not migration more generally (discussed for decades but never agreed) is not just morally but increasingly practically essential. The problem for some governments at the end of the EU migration chain (e.g. UK, Denmark or Ireland) is that they sense only political downside in agreeing to anything such as this. Even in France, the spectre of the far-right xenophobe Marine Le Pen and the next Presidential election lurks not far off. The UK government, committed to a referendum about its future in Europe and also recommitting to crunching down net migration to an impossible 100,000 a year, any constructive approach to migration across the EU is seen as a vote loser. This of course might change if the sense of moral outrage continues to build, as it did eventually during the 1930s. But in the meantime, it is lorry drivers, ships captains and airline check in staff that have become the de-facto border control of Europe – and required to treat all refugees as illegal migrants.

If you have ever wondered why airlines check your travel documentation before you fly or why lorry drivers or ship captains panic when they discover stowaways aboard, they have good reason for doing so. Carriers’ liability legislation, first brought in during the early 1990s, fines these companies considerable amounts for each migrant – for many lorry drivers this might mean their job. When I looked at how shipping companies and airlines responded to this back then, there were horror stories of stowaways being tossed overboard to avoid such consequences as well as more heroic ones where individuals had taken huge personal risk to protect refugees. If anything, with overloaded boats criss-crossing the Mediterranean or Southeast Asia once again these stories have multiplied. Back in the 1990s, one major airline had a global phone number for check in staff around the world worried about refusing passage to someone obviously in immediate danger. Back then, the airline was willing to take the financial hit for bringing to safety someone who might then go on to be recognised as a refugee, even though they were required to see all such people only as illegal migrants. I know of no airline that still takes such an approach.

At the same time as having to having to block irregular migration flows, governments also want shipping companies to play the role of humanitarians when migrants are encountered en route. Since 1918, and partly as a result of the sinking of the Titanic and then also commercial shipping during the First World War, the Safety of Lives at Sea Convention requires captains to come to the assistance of others in distress. Therefore commercial shipping in the Mediterranean or Southeast Asia should not, under international law, turn a blind eye to sinking ships, even if these overloaded craft hardly meet the definition of ship and are in fact designed to sink. Over recent months there have been too many stories of young Filipino sailors having to drag aboard the bodies of decomposing migrants or comfort the mother who still clutches the dead body of a child.

So in the absence of a coherent plan, companies are getting very mixed messages from governments about how they should respond to the flow of migrants and refugees. To block or to assist? Recent United Nations and OECD standards call on businesses to respect all internationally recognised human rights and, last time I looked, the right to asylum was still one of these.

I suppose one area of clarity is that businesses should not seek to exploit what is already a very desperate situation. Recent standards in the USA and UK require businesses to undertake due diligence to avoid human trafficking in their supply chains, and initiatives such as the Gang-master Licensing Authority works to eliminate such exploitation in high risk sectors such as agriculture. The recently agreed International Labour Organisation Protocol on Forced Labour (updating the 1930 Convention) now suggests all governments to take similar action. And in Australia, the role of the private sector in the detention of migrants and asylum-seekers has become a big political issue resulting in investors divesting from some of these companies.

We can only hope that political leaders will once again re-nationalise refugee policy and work towards a much more coherent approach. It is not easy – it is one of the most challenging questions of our time. But once again, we look to Chancellor Merkel to remind her peers that they too have a moral duty to act.