US, Canada, and Humanitarian Flights for Syria’s Refugees

4 October 2015, 1648 EDT

The video above is the YouTube presentation of my remarks this week at University of Toronto’s Davey Forum, whose theme this year was “Is Canada Doing Enough to Promote Human Rights?” I attended at the kind invitation of Duck blogger Wendy Wong and her colleagues Lou Pauly and Rod Haddow, and my remarks followed those of former Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy.

When it was time for the audience to ask questions, the very first question was:

“What can Canada contribute to the Syrian refugee crisis?”

It’s exactly the right kind of question. My answer, in one word: AIRPLANES.

I wonder if any of you have been as surprised as I have been that these relatively prosperous Syrians are paying top dollar to take their small children on dingies across open sea rather than simply buying (frankly cheaper) tickets on commercial flights. Here’s the thing: apparently EU law requires the airlines to be responsible for any asylum seekers they deliver to European soil who are not actually granted asylum. This “Carrier’s Liability” law incentivizes commercial airlines to prohibit passengers from boarding these flights lest they be stuck in limbo at European airports. The refusal to permit refugees to leave their country by air has directly contributed to the deaths of families making dangerous crossings by land and sea, as well as to refugee choke-points in Turkey and Greece whereas many families are actually trying to get farther north.

One Swedish entrepreneur, Emad Zand, has a plan to directly tackle this problem:  he will collect donations to charter private flights to rescue refugees, 150 at a time. Zand’s NGO, Refugee Air, can use all the money he can raise for the endeavor. But as Zand told VICE news, he will not have the capacity to help all those in need. Rather his goal is to demonstrate to the commercial airlines that their asylum fears are unfounded: EU countries have said they will not turn away asylum-seekers.

I think more could be done.  I am no expert in refugee policy, but there must be ways that OECD countries willing to take refugees could re-incentivize the airlines not only to permit refugees aboard, but to actually encourage them to do so.  Absent that, however, countries farther away from the conflict and willing to take refugees could organize their own humanitarian airlifts. As the Honorable Lloyd Axworthy pointed out in his response to this question Wednesday night in Toronto, both Canada and the US have a long history of using fleets of aircraft to assist refugees in fleeing conflict zones.

Yet so far as I can tell, the only humanitarian airlifts occurring in the Syrian context are deliveries of aid (and in the case of Russia, weapons) – to the conflict. To be sure, getting supplies to areas where starvation is being used as a tactic is a logistical challenge and moral imperative. Yet with the right to flee being blocked in various ways, I worry, to use a phrase popular during the Bosnian war, besieged civilians are asked to risk becoming the “well-fed dead. ” Many are not looking for food aid to keep them alive under bombardment: they are looking for escape.

Western countries – and those of us with the ear of their leaders – should help provide it.  This must mean more than shaking our collective fingers at the countries with borders closest to Syria as they try to deal with an overload of asylum-seekers. If we are serious about opening our borders – the US and Canada have both recently pledged to receive several thousand in the next months – we have a responsibility to help them get to us. And with fleets of military cargo planes already in the region, the US could certainly spend as much energy bringing refugees to safety as it currently spends dropping bombs on their country. Candidates for Canadian Prime Minister, meanwhile, have been debating whether to “send planes to Syria” (meaning join the US-led air war against ISIS), support a peaceful resolution, or focus on the refugees. These are not zero-sum options. Sending planes to Syria could mean focusing on the refugees rather than bombing. Even without a government airlift, Western governments – and concerned citizens – can provide resources to private humanitarians willing to organize charter flights out of the region. There is simply no reason not to.