NEW DELHI, Dec 26: With their faces covered, some trying to hide behind their mobile phones and unwilling to speak about their misadventure, 276 Indian passengers emerged from Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharj International Airport, nearly five hours after the Airbus A340 landed in the small hours of Tuesday after being released from France.
The plane landed in Mumbai after a four-day detention in France over suspected human trafficking allegations. The aircraft landed in Mumbai shortly after 4 am. It had taken off from Vatry airport near Paris on Monday afternoon.
French authorities confirmed that 276 passengers had boarded the plane for the flight, while 27 individuals, including five minors and two who were suspected to behind the human trafficking racket, remained on French soil seeking asylum.
Upon landing in Vatry on Friday, it was found that there were 11 unaccompanied minors among 303 passengers. The stranded passengers were provided with makeshift beds, access to toilets and showers, and meals, along with hot drinks, in the halls of Vatry airport during the four-day ordeal.
Liliana Bakayoko, the advocate for the Romanian Legend Airlines whose chartered flight was flying the passengers from Dubai to Nicaragua, said a “non-European” entity had facilitated the journey of 303 Indian passengers from Dubai destined to Nicaragua in Central America.
She said the French authorities got an “anonymous signal” and detained the flight for four days for questioning. “The French authorities got an anonymous signal and they took the signal extremely seriously as they suspected human trafficking to be involved behind the flight. All 303 passengers were Indian citizens and they had boarded the flight in the United Arab Emirates,” Ms Bakayoko said without explaining if the “anonymous signal” came from a third country or an agency that has friendly ties with France.
She said the French authorities converted the airport into a tribunal and the passengers were summoned before a judge before they were allowed to return to India. She said the investigation was currently ongoing in Paris about the flight and its purpose, saying, “At the moment we can say that the aircraft was hired by a non-European client [of the Legend Airlines] who had also sold tickets to the Indian citizens on board for the UAE to Nicaragua flight. We are not naming the client at the moment.”
The flight’s connection to Nicaragua raised eyebrows, as the Central American nation has seen a surge in individuals seeking asylum in the United States. According to data from the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), there has been a significant increase in Indians attempting to enter the US illegally, with 96,917 recorded in the fiscal year 2023, representing a 51.61 percent jump from the previous year.
Of particular concern is the method employed by some migrants, known as ‘donkey flights’, where individuals transit through third countries with lenient travel document requirements to reach their final destinations. The flight – a charter service from Dubai – had landed at the airport, which is around 160 km from Paris, to refuel. It was then grounded after a tip-off the passengers were “likely to be victims of human trafficking.”
Media reports said the plane may be linked to a crime syndicate attempting to smuggle individuals into the United States. The investigation is now under the jurisdiction of France’s anti-organised crime unit, JUNALCO. Human trafficking, if proven, carries severe consequences in France, with a potential sentence of up to 20 years.
Over two dozen passengers on board the charter plane stayed back in France despite the aircraft flying out to Mumbai after legal clearances. These include 20 adults and five minors who have sought asylum in France, said a local official, without identifying their nationality. Their applications would be processed at the Paris airport. Asylum seekers can’t be sent back to their country of origin under international law.
Two others questioned by the French police over suspected trafficking stayed back too, but they have received expulsion order from France, their lawyer said. They were released after the cops were convinced the passengers had boarded the flight out of free will, reports suggest. Their lawyer said the judge was able to “resist media pressure in this case” which led to their release.
The Nicaragua-bound Airbus A340 was carrying 303 passengers when it reached Vatry airport near Paris last Friday. French authorities are still probing the case for immigration law violation, not human trafficking any more, reports suggest citing judicial sources. Nicaragua in Central America is a popular destination for immigrants to cross into the US illegally. Flights to Nicaragua or other countries where one can easily obtain travel documents are known as ‘donkey’ flights.
During the interrogation, French officials discovered that several passengers had booked hotel rooms in Nicaragua and a few even had confirmed tickets to return to the United Arab Emirates. These discoveries further intrigued the French authorities as they tried to ascertain what the Indian passengers wanted to do in the Central American country which is known for being a gateway to the North America. “While it is not unusual for Indians to travel internationally during the Christmas season, investigation is yet to ascertain if all of them came from India to Dubai with the intention of getting on to the same chartered flight or if some of them were already stationed in Dubai,” said Ms Bakayoko.
“A hearing procedure started after the plane was detained and the airport was converted into a tribunal and hearing also took place but subsequently because of the lack of interpreters for such a large number of individuals the hearing was paused and after some time, it was decided to allow them to leave French territory,” said Ms Bakayoko.
Ms Bakayoko said the non-liveried nature of the aircraft did not violate any rule as it was not representing any company but a client who had chartered the flight to ferry passengers. She said neither Nicaragua nor the United Arab Emirates wanted to host the aircraft and that the Indian authorities urged the passengers to return home as they are Indian passport holders.
With the departure of 276 Indians which included the two who were taken into custody for a brief period, the focus of the story has now shifted to the fate of the 25 Indians who sought asylum in France. The lawyer shared that they sought asylum citing various grounds that are still unclear and said that the process may take up to six months to examine each case that the 25 Indians have cited while seeking asylum.
“Asylum is granted if the French authorities find that they could be persecuted on grounds of discrimination like religion, sexual preferences etc. Ascertaining all the cases may take some time and will be done in a case by case basis and till the conclusion of the matter, the individuals will be under the care of French authorities,” Ms Bakayoko said while informing that there was no certainty that the French government would grant asylum to all the 25 Indian citizens.
According to sources in the CSMIA, the flight was sent by a special arrangement since Romanian-based carrier Legend Airlines doesn’t run any of its aircraft to and from Mumbai.
The aircraft landed around 3.30 am, following which passengers disembarked under the strict watch of security officials. They were allowed to leave the airport only after 8.30 am, following rigorous rounds of interrogation that were carried out by authorities from the Immigration Department as well as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
Most of them were from Punjab and Haryana and were allowed to exit the airport in small batches. Many of them were seen coming out with their faces covered with masks and handkerchiefs and avoided speaking to the media.
The passengers exited through the two arrival lobbies (P4 and P6) in the CSMIA and some of them headed towards the domestic terminal by taking the transit bus. Almost all the passengers were carrying not more than two baggage with white stickers of Legend Airline stuck on them. The passengers refrained from speaking about their experience of the journey. Some of them even turned hostile when the media approached them. One of the passengers who hailed from Punjab said they had been allowed to go back to their home state at their own expense. The passenger did not give any other details.