In September 2016, the UN General Assembly held an extraordinary summit Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants. This followed on the heels of ineffective attempts to mobilise sufficient global efforts to help those fleeing violence and poverty to move safely and to find sanctuary. At the meeting, agreements were made to change the migration governance infrastructure, but the form this will take is still being debated and there is not yet evidence of substantial change on the ground.
This piece asks whether Corporate Social Responsibility could help us to understand a potential role of those private companies working in the migration control sector to contribute to these efforts. This sector includes for example transporters, detention and security services, as well as data management, policy advisors and others (this is mapped here).
Attempts to involve the private sector in promoting migrant rights have mostly focused on employers and on the need to ensure compliance with State immigration conditions and avoiding complicity in human trafficking, but this is to miss an important and powerful set of actors.
The Roles of Migration Industries
While CSR in the context of migration industries has received little in-depth study, they have been used to illustrate CSR discourses. For example, authors of one 2007 article argue that: ‘… all states can fail in terms of corporate human rights regulations, and that developed states can and have been party to corporate human rights abuses’.
They illustrate this with the example of Australian immigration detention centres then run by Global Solutions Ltd. Accusations have led to contract changes in these centres, though without changes to staffing and procedures. Recent revelations of barbaric treatment and extreme suffering in the centres indicate that improvement is still necessary.
The problem is not only one of direct violation of human rights. Involving private companies can also relocate the violation of treaty obligations like the prohibition on refoulement (returning someone ‘to the frontiers of territories where his [or her] life or freedom would be threatened on account of his [or her] race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’). This includes the use of pre-entry measures like carrier sanctions, for example. Reducing legal, as well as safe irregular, routes to safety, people moving in extremis are forced to take increased risks.
In the European context, this has contributed to a situation in which, for example, 75% of global migrant deaths between January and September 2014 occurred in the Mediterranean. It also contributes to the context which was described by Médecins Sans Frontièrs as a ‘policy-made humanitarian crisis’.
There is well-developed critique of the role of private sector actors in migration control (e.g. in different ways Georg Menz, Gallya Lahav, Claire Sambrook), with Georg Menz observing in a 2013 essay that ‘… involvement of private-sector companies can also be seen as a way of extracting oneself from accountability and avoiding the often-unpleasant implementation of the most immediate and potentially aggressive forms of direct interaction with migrants’. Commentators also observe a connection between the involvement of the private sector and increasing connection of migration with security and fear (e.g. Claire Rodier).
Are Deportations Bad for Business?
It is common for States to pay passenger transport companies to remove individuals from their territories. Deportation in itself is controversial (one scholar recently referred to it as ‘forced migration’), but it becomes particularly problematic (indeed, in violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention) when it may involve refoulement.
In 2007, Air France employees encouraged shareholders to oppose the company’s involvement in deportations, while British carrier XL Airways declared it would no longer carry failed asylum-seeking deportees, explaining that it had ‘sympathy for all dispossessed people in the world’. Individual pilots on various airlines continue to refuse to fly in certain circumstances, including the return of people with controversial failed asylum claims, and there have been cases of passengers refusing to cooperate with staff, forcing the grounding of deportation flights.
There is, then, both an ethical case and business case here. Deportations only represent a small part of the revenue for large passenger carriers like Air France, as one union representative observed: ‘[t]he expulsions are very bad for the image of the Air France brand, particularly in Africa’.
Carrier Sanctions: a Penalty on CSR?
Carrier sanctions are fines and penalties placed on passenger transport companies for carrying persons without the documentation demanded by the receiving State. This impacts on asylum-seeking which often involves travel without required documents. It is also associated with forcing low-paid and untrained staff of private transport companies to take humanitarian decisions.
Carrier sanctions can lead to problematic incentives. A company can be sanctioned if it carries a person whose humanitarian claims is not recognised by a State. Carriers are not sanctioned if they leave persons with humanitarian claims behind. In some countries, the sanctions are waived if the person applies for asylum, irrespective of outcome, but not everywhere. It is hard to know how many persons trying to flee have been stopped by carriers fearing sanction.
The large and expanding migration control sector has not received much attention from the CSR community. For the most part, CSR discourse does not adequately address situations where powerful developed States mediate the violation of international norms through delegation to the private sector. Examining the migration industry helps to uncover the dynamics of such a situation.
It also indicates how the use of CSR might facilitate those corporate sectors involved in migration governance (and their customers, employees and shareholders) to contribute in important ways to creating a new global context in which the human rights of those migrating are respected and protected. Part of this could involve helping to ensure safe routes for those fleeing persecution and fear of death.
This short piece is based on a longer article, where the ideas introduced here are developed further:
Tendayi Bloom (2016) ’Cleaning Dirty Hands? Some Thoughts on Private Companies, Migration and CSR in the European Union’, Human Rights and International Legal Discourse 10(2).