When immigrants are deported, it might seem like they are detained and swiftly rendered off to exile. But the mechanics of deportation still involve real-life institutions, companies, and workers. Around the world, citizens, labor groups, and even businesses are realizing that the gears of border security don’t turn without their complicity. The tools of collective action are becoming vehicles for resistance, by putting brakes on the logistical chain of deportation.
One intrepid activist in Sweden recently protested a deportation on a Turkey-bound flight by taking a stand, literally. Elin Ersson, a 21-year-old social work student, refused to sit—a prerequisite for takeoff—because the Turkish Airlines flight was carrying an Afghan refugee to his deportation. “I’m not going to sit down until this person is off the plane,” she said with calm conviction, explaining that the Afghan man could be sent home to his death in a war zone. The standoff initially triggered a panic among the staff and passengers. But soon fellow travelers were rallying behind her, even defending her from a hostile passenger who tried to grab the phone she was streaming on. Within minutes the staff yielded, arranging to have the man removed from the flight. She later told The Guardian, “I felt supported by the people on the plane…. I knew that I couldn’t back down because it was my name that was on the ticket. I had to do what I could.”
In the UK last week, activists called for a halt to the scheduled deportations of two refugees, Beauty and EM, survivors of abuse and trafficking from South Africa and Nigeria, respectively. They were set to fly out on Kenya and British Airways, but activists said that their physical and psychological trauma had left them unfit to fly, and repatriation would put them at risk of human-rights violations. On social media, they also called for direct action if necessary: “If you know anybody travelling on these flights…ask them to complain and challenge. Flights can’t go if passengers don’t take their seats and pilots can refuse to fly if any passenger is distressed.”
London’s airports have for years been a ground zero for anti-deportation blockades, with activists locking themselves to a tripod at Stansted airport, and even physically gluing themselves to detention-center gates to block transfers of immigrants near Heathrow airport. Meanwhile similar direct actions—which could lead to risk of legal prosecution—have been undertaken in Australia, where a woman was indicted after disrupting the transfer of a detainee to a remote detention center, and Germany, where pilots refused to fly 222 planes carrying deportees from January to September last year.
The aviation industry is beginning to resist on an industrial level as well. Several major airlines have pledged to resist deportation actions by simply refusing to take off with deportees on board. In Australia, a broad civil-society coalition recently issued a statement urging Qantas and Virgin airlines to refuse to participate in deportations, co-signed by the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) and Refugee Advice and Casework Service, along with human-rights and labor organizations, including the International Trade Union Confederation, and Australia’s teachers’ and manufacturing workers’ unions. They argued that, with so many migrants suffering brutality in their home countries and facing oppression and incarceration in Australia:
Given the inadequacy of Australian law and policy in upholding [international legal and human rights] standards, airlines should engage a heightened due diligence process in order to determine the potential for contribution to adverse human rights impacts before conducting any deportations as a provider of services to the Australian government.
In the United States, where Trump’s brutal family-separation policy has sparked public outrage, some airlines have responded by taking a rare policy stance. United, American, Alaska, Frontier, and Spirit airlines announced that they would refuse to transport migrant children to detention facilities separate from their parents. The Association of Flight Attendants–CWA, which represents flight attendants from 20 airlines, applauded the airlines’ statements, but also called for full transparency and accountability going forward. While the union stopped short of declaring that members would refuse to comply with migrant transfers, it commented on workers’ growing ethical concerns:
Some [crews] are struggling with the question of participating in a process that they feel is deeply immoral….
We expect this issue could continue to escalate and tensions rise when passengers or crew experience even the appearance onboard of children separated from their families. This can become a safety and security issue, which makes it all the more important that airlines provide as much information as possible to crews in order to ensure a safe working environment for Flight Attendants and passengers.
Meanwhile, ACCR has requested meetings with Qantas and Virgin executives, who have so far refused to take a public stand against deportations, and called on Qantas shareholders to pressure the airlines to “not participate in deportations” in situations where migrants had been denied “an adequate legal process” and faced “real risk of serious, irreparable harm.”
But ultimately, will refusals to fly and other direct actions against individual deportations change the overarching policy of border security? For Ersson, the triumph was fleeting; the refugee she defended ended up being deported via another flight that day.
When asked about the longer-term impact of such interventions, Ian Rintaul of Refugee Coalition Action Sydney argued that the politics of “refusal to fly” were both symbolic and substantive. Noting that in some cases the refusals have provided refugees more opportunities to petition for asylum, Rintaul says via e-mail from Sydney: “The actions also have a permanent effect by removing forced deportations as an option for the government.… So for every individual actually prevented from being deported there will be tens of hundreds of others that the government could not actually remove. Importantly, the actions open another front against permanent anti-refugee policy.”
From blocking flights to shaming airlines, transportation hubs can be a stage for political spectacle and for direct obstruction of the mechanics of border enforcement. Although immigration policy-makers in the United States and abroad are stuck at an impasse on migration policy, the system’s logistical networks are evolving into a new political battlefield. From the border to the tarmac, resisters are standing their ground.