300 Indians stuck in French airport for fourth day amid trafficking probe

Ten of the passengers apply for French asylum, as judges probe whether a criminal group is linked to trafficking.

French gendarmes patrol around a terminal at Vatry airport, north-eastern France, on December 23, 2023 two days after officials grounded a Nicaragua-bound plane carrying more than 300 Indian passengers over suspected "human trafficking". - The Airbus A340 has been held at Vatry airport, 150 kilometres (95 miles) east of Paris, since arriving from Dubai following an anonymous tip-off that it was carrying potential victims of human trafficking. Thirteen unaccompanied minors are among the more than 300 Indian passengers. (Photo by FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI / AFP)
French gendarmes patrol around a terminal at Paris-Vatry airport, on December 23 [Francois Nascimbeni/AFP]

Hundreds of Indian nationals sequestered in a French airport are being questioned by authorities over concerns they could be victims of human trafficking.

Four French judges are rushing to speak to the group of over 300 Indians who have been grounded at the Vatry airport, 150km (93 miles) east of Paris, since Thursday.

Their charter plane, destined for the Central American nation of Nicaragua, was stopped at Vatry airport where it had landed to refuel after authorities received an anonymous tip that trafficking victims may be aboard. It had taken off from the United Arab Emirates’ Fujairah airport and was run by the Romania-based Legend Airlines.

‘Situation is urgent’

The sequestered passengers are to appear on Sunday before French judges, who will decide whether to keep them in the airport longer or send them on their way, according to the administration for the Marne region.

“I don’t know if this has ever been done before in France,” Francois Procureur, lawyer and head of the Chalons-en-Champagne Bar Association, told local media on Saturday. The situation is urgent because “we cannot keep foreigners in a waiting area for more than 96 hours. Beyond that, it is the liberty and custody judge who must rule on their fate,” he said.

If necessary, a specialised judge could prolong the passengers’ detention to eight days, followed by another eight days in exceptional circumstances.

After initially being kept on the airport’s tarmac, passengers were moved into an airport waiting area terminal, where beds were installed for them to sleep in, France’s BFM TV broadcaster reported. Staff were also available to provide medical assistance to those in need, the media reported.

Among the group are many children and 11 unaccompanied minors. Ten of the passengers have requested asylum, news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported, quoting a source close to the case.

Patrick Jaloux, the head of civil protection in the Marne region, said the passengers were understandably “frustrated” after spending three nights in the airport.

The Indian embassy in Paris said on Saturday that it was working for “a rapid resolution of the situation”, posting on X that “consular officials are on site”.

Airline denies trafficking role

Several of the detained travellers are suspected of having a different “role” in the journey than the other passengers.

Two in particular are being looked into as part of a special investigation into suspected human trafficking by a criminal group, said the Paris prosecutor’s office

The 15 crew members of the Legend Airlines charter flight were questioned and released, according to the airline lawyer, who denied the company had any possible role in trafficking.

The airline has “has not committed any infraction”, said lawyer Liliana Bakayoko.

Bakayoko added a “partner” company, which she did not name, was responsible for verifying the identification documents of each passenger.

Nicaragua, where the flight was headed, has been designated by the US government as one of several countries deemed as failing to meet minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking.

Nicaragua has also been used as a base by people fleeing poverty or conflict in the Caribbean as well as far-flung countries in Africa or Asia, because of relaxed or visa-free entry requirements for some countries. From there, the migrants travel north by bus with the help of smugglers.

The influx of Indian migrants through Mexico has increased from fewer than 3,000 in 2022 to more than 11,000 from January to November this year, according to the Mexican immigration agency.

Indian citizens were arrested 41,770 times entering the US illegally from Mexico in the US government’s budget year that ended September 30, more than double from 18,308 the previous year.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies