Migrant crisis: airports caught in the middle

The modern surge of migration, driven by those seeking economic opportunity or fleeing from war or persecution, is a defining geopolitical issue of our time. How are airports affected, and is there a solution? Chris Lo reports


he ‘European migrant crisis’, as it has been labelled, has captured the world’s attention since it started to ramp up in 2015. The mass displacement of millions of people from conflict-wracked countries such as Syria, Libya and Afghanistan has created ongoing scenes of tragedy, from the lives lost at sea as migrants and refugees attempt to cross the Mediterranean to the tension and squalor of migrant camps in Calais and across Europe.

Global displacement is “at a record high”, according to the 2018 edition of the UN International Organization for Migration’s World Migration Report. The report notes that there are currently around 244 million international migrants worldwide, representing 3.3% of the global population, while the number of displaced refugees has reached 22 million. 

While the focus for many observers of the unfolding migrant crisis has rightly been on the movement of people over water and land, airports are major points of entry for millions of migrants, whether attracted by economic opportunity or fleeing from conflict or persecution in their countries of origin. 

The issue of immigration is a thorny one for airports, which host national border control authorities and can often become caught in the middle of the growing tensions surrounding border security and mass migration. 

Because while managing migration is an immensely complex task – with numbers set to grow, driven by the deterioration of active war zones and the economic disparity between developing and developed countries – it is also highly politicised. Immigration policy is set at a national or – in the case of the European Union (EU) – supranational level, subject to intense political debate and involving sensitive ethical and humanitarian concerns. As such, airport operations are left highly vulnerable to shifts in domestic policy or migrant flows.

Image courtesy of 

Image courtesy of 

Migration tension: airports caught in the crossfire

As migration continues to fall under the political spotlight, the last few years have thrown up multiple examples of the airport chaos that can be wrought by changes in immigration policy and requirements. US President Donald Trump’s now-infamous ‘travel ban’ on passengers from various Muslim-majority countries by executive order last year is the most high-profile example, with airports such as JFK, LAX and Washington Dulles Airport bearing the brunt of stranded travellers and public protests. 

In summer 2017, European airports struggled to deal with the impact of tightened EU requirements (EU 2017/458) for border checks of passengers from outside the Schengen Area. The new regulation, introduced in the wake of terror attacks in Brussels and Paris, mandates both entry and exits checks for non-Schengen travellers, with passenger details cross-referenced against databases including the Schengen Information System and Interpol travel document records. 

The regulations caused sporadic but serious delays at airports across Europe – the regulation did not come into full force until October but some airports attempted to implement the rules early – including hubs in Spain, France, Italy, Belgium and Portugal. 

Image courtesy of 

“Member States need to take all necessary measures now to prevent such disruptions and deploy appropriate staff and resources in sufficient numbers to carry out the requested checks,” said Thomas Reynaert, managing director of trade association Airlines for Europe, last year.

“Airports like Madrid, Palma de Mallorca, Lisbon, Lyon, Paris-Orly, Milan or Brussels are producing shameful pictures of devastated passengers in front of immigration booths, in lines stretching hundreds of metres. At some airports, flight delays have increased by 300% compared to last year – member states must take responsibility for this.”

The numbers game for immigration and border control staff is likely to be drawn into sharper focus in the coming years, with the UK’s upcoming exit from the EU likely to be a flashpoint. In February, the UK Home Affairs Select Committee warned that the UK Border Force does not have the capacity to properly enforce a new immigration system after the country ends its EU membership.

“Decisions and announcements keep being delayed,” said committee chair Yvette Cooper. “Crucial details are still lacking. Will there be one registration scheme or two? Same rules during the transition or not? Extra border checks or not? Are they planning to ask employers to check registration documents? Or landlords? Will the same rules apply for Norway and Iceland as the EU?”

Eero Knuutila is Head of Service Development at Helsinki Airport.

Image courtesy: Helsinki Airport

European airports struggled to deal with the impact of tightened EU requirements for border checks of passengers from outside the Schengen Area

Trapped in the transit zone

The complexity of the immigration system is muddied further by the issue of managing the applications of refugees and asylum seekers, especially as global conflicts create increased pressure on vulnerable populations. Visa denials, coupled with passengers’ fears for their safety if they return home, can leave asylum seekers stranded in the legal and ethical grey area of airport transit zones for weeks, months or even years.

April brought widespread media reports of Hassan al-Kontar, a Syrian man who has been stranded at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia for more than three months, reportedly sleeping under a stairway. Al-Kontar had been working in the United Arab Emirates, but was deported when the Syrian embassy refused to renew his passport. Malaysia’s visa exemption for Syrian tourists offered a temporary respite, but after three months he attempted to fly to Ecuador to seek refuge. After the airline refused to let him fly, he was also denied re-entry to Malaysia, leaving him marooned at the airport. 

“I don't know what to do,” al-Kontar told the BBC. “I have no one to advise me on where I can go. I really need help because I believe the worst is yet to come.” His story is, tragically, not unique, with other families from Syria, Zimbabwe and elsewhere left stranded at airport transit zones in the last year.

Image courtesy of 

Even when asylum seekers’ requests are officially processed, immigration systems in many countries have been criticised for their treatment of asylum seekers and hard-line deportation policies. Detention facilities, often located on or next to airport grounds, are often sources of political controversy, as in the case of the migrant accommodation centre at Frankfurt Airport, where asylum seekers stay while their applications are processed. Speaking to German news agency DPA in 2016, aid worker Olivia Reckmann of Caritas criticised the quick decision-making around asylum seekers at German airports for its tendency to lead to “gross errors of judgement”.

The political backlash against government agencies has been strong, but the impact can also be felt by airport operators. At Stansted Airport on 28 March last year, evening flights were suspended after a group of 17 protesters broke into the airfield to block a charter flight that was being used to deport asylum seekers and other migrants to Nigeria.

Immigration systems in many countries have been criticised for their treatment of asylum seekers and hard-line deportation policies

Searching for solutions

With incidents such as these driven by government policy and an increasingly chaotic migration landscape, airports can be left vulnerable to massive disruption with little recourse. Bolstering staff numbers and training will certainly help ease these issues, and advanced digital technologies will likely provide a longer-term remedy. 

However, there are a host of technical and ethical issues holding back the timely implementation of technologies such as biometrics and automated passport scanners. Aéroports de Paris, for example, was held up from introducing automatic passport readers at Paris Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports last year, because the French Ministry of the Interior had not yet made a decision on the legality of facial recognition software.

Ultimately the migration climate is a reflection of the state of the wider world, and the current surge of refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants is a dark manifestation of the global conflict and economic inequality that remains unresolved. Policymakers, not airport authorities, have the responsibility to address these momentous issues, but as long as these problems remain, airports will continue to be hotspots for their damaging effects.

Eero Knuutila is Head of Service Development at Helsinki Airport.

Image courtesy: Helsinki Airport

There are a host of technical and ethical issues holding back the timely implementation of technologies such as biometrics


Share this article