Could Adding a Small Fee to Airline Tickets Solve Europe’s Migration Crisis?
A little known, low-cost airline levy has saved millions of lives from disease. Could it also be the answer to other crises around the globe?
Since 2006, the French government has added a small surcharge to the cost of every flight leaving France. For customers, the increase in cost is so tiny — usually around 1 euro for coach tickets and only up to 4 euros for business class — that it’s all but invisible.
But the additional cash doesn’t go to the French government, and the airlines don’t take a cut either. Instead, the money goes into a fund set up by UNITAID — a World Health Organization global health initiative.
Since the airline levy was implemented in France less than a decade ago, 11 other countries have also adopted the practice. In that small time period, the levy alone has raised more than $2 billion to help fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. And airline passengers never knew the difference.
Philippe Douste-Blazy, the undersecretary-general of the United Nations, chairman of UNITAID, and the brains behind the program calls the participation of flyers a step toward the globalization of solidarity.
“It is absolutely painless for companies; it is not even the price of a coffee; it is nothing,” he told Foreign Policy. “But with 1 euro, you can save children from malaria.”
And because the initiative has raised such a tremendous amount of funding in so little time, Douste-Blazy now sees it as a potential fundraising solution for other world crises.
As a former French foreign and health minister, the European migration crisis is now on the top of his mind. But as money pours into Italy and Greece to try to put together temporary housing for the many migrants and refugees landing on the countries’ shores each day, Douste-Blazy wants to bring more attention to fixing the situations they’re fleeing at home.
Because disease and lack of healthcare options are tied to many of the other factors that push migrants to seek refuge away from home, Douste-Blazy sees expanding the levy as an opportunity to dramatically improve standards of living in the countries migrants leave.
A recent report by the U.N.’s refugee agency found that most people fleeing to Europe by sea are running from war, persecution, or other dangerous conflicts at home or in refugee-hosting countries nearby. According to Douste-Blazy, Europe’s current response, which includes deploying police and soldiers to wait for the migrants, isn’t sustainable or cost-effective.
“It isn’t possible to continue like that,” he said. “The only key is to provide global public goods in their countries.”
In the development community, more money is always the answer to more successful projects. But with countries facing significant debt, and Greece, the top recipient of maritime refugees, completely bankrupt, it’s become impossible to ask for money in traditional ways.
Douste-Blazy’s solution? What he calls “painless solidarity contribution.” By shaving small amounts of money off the top of existing financial transactions, the development world can gain money that won’t be missed anywhere else.
Last year, in addition to the airline levy, Douste-Blazy convinced five African heads of state to agree on another solidarity negotiation on their extractive resources. For every barrel of oil that leaves the Republic of Congo, for example, another organization — UNITLIFE — will receive 10 cents. Mali and Niger will reach similar agreements with their gold mines and uranium supplies. If Douste-Blazy could convince more African countries to do the same, the fund would likely make hundreds of millions of additional dollars a year.
But many countries, including the United States, have resisted implementing the program.
Taxes are politically sensitive, especially when the money is going to an outside foundation rather than services that will necessarily benefit the taxpayers themselves. “It is a failure because only 12 countries implemented it,” Douste-Blazy said. “But it is a success because of the results.”
In 2000, all United Nations member countries agreed to focus on what they called Millennium Development Goals — a set of eight issues, ranging from poverty to education to gender equality, that needed to be drastically improved by 2015.
Today, many of the same issues that plagued the world fifteen years ago are the ones pushing migrants to flee to Europe in search of better opportunities. Douste-Blazy is hopeful that as the international community reflects on ways in which it could have better supported the MDGs, more heads of state will warm up to the idea of solidarity funding.
Because only a handful of countries are currently participating, how much could actually be raised is speculative. But the success of the UNITAID program is a good benchmark for just how quickly huge amounts of money could be raised.
“We can see the needs are increasing, and the money is decreasing,” he said. “So we need to do something innovative.”
Photo credit: GIOVANNI ISOLINO/AFP/Getty Images