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 said “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.