Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Why would an airline pilot divert a flight to seek asylum?

On Sunday night in San Francisco (early morning on Monday in Geneva), I listened live and followed reports on Twitter (where the story was reported hours before mainstream media figured out what going on) as an Ethiopian Airlines flight, originally destined for Rome and then Milan, landed in Geneva with one of the pilots requesting asylum.

This diversion of the flight by one of the pilots wasn't what I would call a "hijacking". It does nothing to change my opinions of Ethiopia as one of the best and safest destinations in Africa for foreign tourists, of Ethiopian people as friendly to foreign visitors, and of Ethiopian Airlines as the best airline on the continent and justifiably an object of national pride.

But this incident leaves many foreigners wondering, "Why would an airline pilot divert a flight to seek asylum?"

This is really two questions: Why would he want to leave Ethiopia and seek asylum in Switzerland? And why would a pilot do so by diverting a regularly scheduled flight?

First, Ethiopia is a very poor country. Many Ethiopians would leave if they could, perhaps with sadness at leaving their homeland but in hope of a more secure material existence elsewhere. Many Ethiopians work abroad, with or without government permission. When we left Ethiopia, our flight to Sana'a was filled with young women, many of whom were on an airplane for the first time in their lives, on their way to contract jobs as maids and nannies in places like Jeddah and Beirut. More Ethiopians are turned back trying to emigrate illegally to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States across the Red Sea, or to Europe or further afield, even the USA, if they can make it that far.

But a pilot flying Boeing 767 widebodied jets for the national airline is at the high end of local salary scales, and would have relatively little economic reason to leave. That tends to support the likelihood that the pilot had genuinely political, non-economic motives for seeking asylum in Switzerland.

That brings me to a second key point: Ethiopia is a police state. As I've noted many times before, that doesn't necessarily mean it's not a pleasant place to visit (as long as you don't talk about the government), but I wouldn't want to live there. Any criticism of the Ethiopian government is treated as a treasonous sign of support for the existential enemy next door, Eritrea, which won its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after decades of armed struggle.

Relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea are on a par with those between other bad neighbors with deep historical, cultural, and ethnic ties but warring polities: North and South Korea, Taiwan and mainland China, India and Pakistan, or previously East and West Germany. Fears of a fifth column are exacerbated by the fact that many people have been stranded since the partition on the "wrong" side of the border from that which they would have chosen.

The border between Ethiopia and Eritrea is closed and fortified, there are no direct flights between the two countries, and anyone in either country who receives a letter from the other side is liable, we were told, to receive a visit from the secret police shortly thereafter.

Pilots for any national airline are entrusted with self-propelled pieces of government property worth tens of millions of dollars. It's hard to hide a jetliner, but it's also hard to repossess one once it's on enemy territory. There's a considerable history of both military and civilian pilots defecting with their planes, often to a hero's welcome. In 2012, for example, two Eritrean Air Force pilots flew the presidential plane to Saudi Arabia, where they requested and received political asylum. So governments that are generally distrustful of their citizens' loyalties tend to be especially wary of pilots (and to a lesser degree flight attendants and anyone else who travels regularly abroad), and to keep at least as close watch on them and their loyalties as on the keepers of the crown jewels.

There have already begun to be reports that the pilot who diverted the Ethiopian plane to Switzerland "believed he was under surveillance". Given the lengths to which Ethiopia's government has gone to spy on journalists and suspected dissidents in the Ethiopian diaspora, even as far away as the USA, it's hard to discount the pilot's reported fears as unfounded paranoia.

I could only speculate (although I can think of several potentially valid reasons) as to why the Ethiopian pilot thought his asylum claim would be more favorably and/or impartially received in Switzerland than in Italy. But once he decided he wanted to seek asylum in Switzerland, wouldn't there have been other ways for him to get there, or to make his claim for asylum there?

Not necessarily.

Although Switzerland is not a part of the European Union (or the Euro zone), Switzerland is part of the Schengen Zone (within which border controls have been abolished) and the Dublin Regulations on asylum. Under these rules, any application for asylum is referred for a decision to the first member country in which the applicant arrived. So if the pilot had absconded during the crew layover in Italy, made his way to Switzerland, and then applied for asylum, he would have been sent back to Italy and his asylum application would have been ruled on by Italian authorities, under Italian law.

You can only apply for asylum in Switzerland at the Swiss border or on Swiss territory. In practice, because all of Switzerland's land borders are with other parties to the Dublin Regulations, you can only have your asylum claim heard by Swiss authorities, under Swiss law, if you fly into Switzerland without first entering any other country that subscribes to the Dublin Regulations.

That's relatively easy if the police aren't after you (or watching all the foreign airline offices, as they are in many countries) , you have enough money, and you have a passport from a country like the USA whose citizens don't need visas to enter Switzerland.

It's not so easy, even with enough money and if the police aren't watching you, with a passport (assuming the government will give you a passport) from most of the world's countries who (in general) need visas to enter Switzerland or the USA.

If an international airline passenger is denied entry to a country, the airline that transported them to that country is responsible for taking them away again, and in many countries including the USA for the costs of detaining them until they can be deported as well as additional administrative fines. The airline can try to recover those costs from the passenger, but the chances of collecting costs measured in thousands of dollars from a failed asylum-seeker are poor.

The attitude of airlines (and governments) towards asylum seekers was made explicit at a symposium on travel documents I attended in 2006 at the headquarters of of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO):

Bob Davidson of the airline cartel IATA had one of the most objectionably inhumane lines of the entire event when he told the assembled government representatives, "Every time someone at a border says the magic words, 'political asylum', you've lost." So much for the idea that each time someone reaches a place of refuge from a well-founded fear of persecution, it's a victory for human rights.

So in practice an airline won't let you board an international flight unless you can show that you already have whatever documents the airline thinks you will need in order to be admitted to the country of your destination. Airline conditions of carriage typically phrase this in terms of what documents are "required", but technically speaking asylum seekers don't need visas, passports, or any other documents -- if their asylum applications are eventually granted.

You are entitled to apply for asylum on arrival in Switzerland or the USA, but regardless of the seeming merits of your claim, asylum can never be guaranteed in advance. No airline will sell you an international ticket for the purpose of seeking asylum.

To travel by air to a country of potential refuge, you need to either (1) have a passport from one of the (mostly rich) countries whose citizens don't need visas to enter, (2) get a visa under some other pretense (which is likely to involve fraud), (3) obtain forged or fraudulent documents, or (4) buy, rent, charter, divert, hijack, or otherwise get control of an airplane.

There is no legal way for legitimate, qualified asylum seekers from most countries in the world to fly to any country of potential refuge where they could apply for asylum. Willingness to engage in document and/or immigration fraud, or take other more drastic and/or dangerous action, is the typical (risky) prerequisite to applying for asylum.

It doesn't have to be this way: This is the direct and foreseeable consequence of sanctioning airlines for transporting passengers who are denied admission, and failing to sanction airlines that violate their obligations as common carriers. The rational response, from a purely profit-seeking perspective, is for airlines to direct their check-in staff to act as asylum and immigration judges of first and last resort, with an overwhelming presumption of denial.

Link | Posted by Edward on Wednesday, 19 February 2014, 16:56 ( 4:56 PM) | TrackBack (0)
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