Tens of thousands of refugees and migrants have flooded into Europe in recent weeks, with many making the perilous journey by boat across the Mediterranean, or braving water cannons and tear gas as they try to cross by foot through Hungary en route to Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe.
Nearly 3,000 people have died at sea during the voyage, and the loss of life combined with the chaotic situation at many of Europe's border crossings led two young Swedish entrepreneurs to devise a better — and safer — way to help a handful of desperate Syrians reach their destinations: Refugee Air, a service that flies refugees directly to Sweden on a chartered plane.
VICE News spoke to Emad Zand, a 31-year-old co-founder of the project, about what inspired Refugee Air, reluctance by commercial airlines to transport refugees, and why European governments would benefit from refugees and migrants using air travel.
VICE News: You want to charter an airplane to fly Syrian refugees into Sweden. How did you come up with that idea?
Emad Zand: I was going to take some time off after having sold my own business one month ago. But then I saw the picture of the 3-year-old boy swept up at the shores of Europe. He looked exactly like I did when I was small. I was born in Iran and came to Sweden when I was 2 years old, nearly the same age as the little Syrian boy. His picture shocked me and I jumped into finding solutions to this humanitarian catastrophe.
People are fleeing over the sea and dying there, though they will be granted asylum for sure when they come to Sweden or Germany. I wondered: Why do they not just take a plane?
Why don't they?
Commercial air carriers do not take Syrian refugees because they are afraid that they will be held liable for them. If a person does not get asylum, the carrier has to fly him back and pay for that. But there is, at the moment, no risk that this will happen. Germany and Sweden have said that they will accept all Syrian refugees that come into their countries. The same holds for most of Western Europe.
Why do the large carriers not fly Syrians over then?
We wondered why nobody is doing that. I think it is not only the moral, but the legal responsibility of the carriers to fly Syrian refugees over. It is one of the aims of our project to raise awareness about that.
The other goal is to actually fly Syrians over. That sounds crazy. Do you think you will really make it happen?
Yes, of course, we will have to make it happen to show the world that it is possible. We want to have the first plane on the ground in Stockholm before the snow falls here in Sweden. We will probably have 150 refugees flying over to Stockholm from Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey.
From Syria that is not possible; it is a warzone. We have not made a final decision on the airport we are going to use for taking off. And if we decide, we will not publish it because we can only take 150 people, not millions.
So it is only going to be one airplane for 150 people?
That is not sure yet. There will be one, possibly more. But we hope that we will show the commercial airlines that it is legal. We want to encourage them to fly refugees over themselves.
Is it possible for you to just charter an airplane to take the refugees over?
It is actually very easy. We had no contacts to the airline industry when we had the idea and first posted it on Facebook. But very quickly we came in contact with pilots and other people working with airlines. And we found out that it is like buying container space on a spot market. You can charter a flight from a flight broker. Just say how many people you want to be taken from where to where and they will give you a daily rate for it.
How much does it cost?
It is cheap. It costs less than 60,000 euros for one flight with 150 people.
What about the crew? Do you have to find them yourselves?
No. The brokers provide everything: pilots, stewardesses; soft drinks are also included. It is pretty simple. What is more difficult is to convince politicians and airlines that they should do the same. If you grant automatic asylum to Syrian refugees, you cannot just make them swim over and die on the way.
'If you grant automatic asylum to Syrian refugees, you cannot just make them swim over and die on the way.'
Who is going to pay for your flight? The refugees?
We are a non-profit initiative. If the refugees will be able to pay for the flight, that is good, it will be a cheap flight for them. But if we find out that they cannot pay, we will let them fly for free.
How are you going to make sure that there will be only Syrian refugees on your flight?
We will work with local NGOs to find the refugees we will fly over. We will only let people fly that have a Syrian passport or a Syrian identity confirmed by a third party.
It would be so much better for the European countries to fly the refugees over instead of letting them flee over land and the sea. They will not die on the way, and Europe would have much more control over who is coming, as you have a passenger list and personal data versus just people landing randomly on the shores. We will not be the best airline in the world or the best screener of refugees, but we want to show it is possible.
Are you concerned that you might be accused of human trafficking?
No. First of all, we are non-profit. And secondly, we take the refugees to an area within the airport, which is considered to be outside the borders. They will have to go through the normal procedure of frontier crossing there, showing their passports and applying for asylum directly.
Do people like your idea? Or are Swedes afraid that too many refugees will come to the country?
We get a lot of support, but there are also non-supporters. I tell them that regardless of how many immigrants you want in the country, you have to agree that people dying on the way over to Europe is a shit solution. That has to change, but Refugee Air will not stop the refugee crisis.
Follow Lisa Nienhaus on Twitter: @lisakatharina
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