Indians sent back by France over trafficking concerns: What we know

A makeshift courtroom was set up in a French airport to investigate human trafficking concerns.

The flight en route to Nicaragua from the United Arab Emirates was stopped in France for four days before most of its Indian passengers were sent home and landed in Mumbai on December 26, 2023 [Rafiq Maqbool/AP Photo]

A plane carrying suspected victims of human trafficking was rerouted to India while on its way to Nicaragua after being detained in France. It has now landed in Mumbai.

While no evidence of trafficking was found, the inquiry gave way to concerns of undocumented immigration that are still being investigated by French authorities.

Here is what we know about the flight’s tumultuous journey over the past few days.

What happened to the plane suspected of human trafficking in France?

  • The plane was an Airbus A340 operated by Romania-based Legend Airlines. The aircraft, carrying 303 Indian passengers, departed from Fujairah International Airport in Dubai and was en route to Nicaragua in Central America.
  • On Thursday afternoon, it stopped to refuel at Vatry Airport, about 150km (95 miles) east of Paris. French police used the opportunity to intervene after an anonymous tip that some of its passengers may be victims of trafficking.
  • The aircraft remained grounded in France for four days for legal deliberations. The reception hall at Vatry Airport was transformed into a waiting area. Passengers were given individual beds while they awaited a decision on where they would travel next, local officials in the eastern Marne region of France said on Friday.
  • A French court ruled that authorities did not have the legal authority to detain several of the passengers further, and the plane was cleared to leave by French prosecutors on Sunday.
  • The Airbus A340 then departed with 276 of the Indian passengers on Monday and landed in Mumbai early on Tuesday. It is unclear why the plane diverted to Mumbai instead of resuming its journey to Nicaragua. The remaining 27 passengers on the original flight remained in France.
  • In a post on X, the Indian embassy expressed thanks to French officials for the “quick resolution of the situation enabling Indian passengers to return home”.

Why was the plane detained in France?

A makeshift courtroom was set up at the airport where emergency judicial hearings were carried out for two days into the conditions and purposes of the trip by a unit specializing in organised crime.

Consular officials from the Indian embassy in Paris were also on site.

Twenty-five of the passengers, including five minors, requested asylum in the country while two passengers were detained based on suspicions of trafficking before being released. They have also reportedly requested asylum.

“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,” Francois Procureur, the head of the Chalons-en-Champagne Bar Association, told local television on Saturday.

Once it received clearance, the plane left Vatry Airport.

What evidence of human trafficking was found?

No concrete evidence was found, but French authorities said they are continuing to investigate potential breaches of immigration laws.

The passengers were likely Indian workers in the United Arab Emirates intending to use Nicaragua as a gateway to the United States or Canada, a source close to the inquiry told the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency.

Liliana Bakayoko, a lawyer for Legend Airlines, denied that the company had any role in human trafficking or “committed any infraction”.

An unnamed “partner” company was responsible for verifying the identification documents of each passenger, according to Bakayoko.

What do we know about the passengers?

The passengers were Indian and included many children, including 11 unaccompanied minors and a 21-month-old.

They were “frustrated” after spending several nights at the airport, said Patrick Jaloux, the head of civil protection in the Marne region.

The 15 crew members of the Legend Airlines flight were also questioned and released.

Procureur said the hearings were “unprecedented”.

“I’m surprised at how things unfolded in the waiting area,” Procureur told BFM television. “People should have been informed of their rights, and clearly, that was not the case.”

Why Nicaragua and what happens to the passengers now?

The US has designated Nicaragua as a country that has done the least to prevent human trafficking. It is both a source and a major transit route for undocumented people looking to enter the US.

While no human trafficking has been confirmed yet among the passengers on the plane, Genevieve Colas, coordinator at the French nonprofit Secours Catholique-Caritas told AFP the release of the plane had “surprised” her. “What if they really are victims of people trafficking?” she asked. “Then it wouldn’t be right to just let them take off to another country.” Secours Catholique-Caritas works with displaced people and migrants in multiple countries around the world.

In Mumbai, Indian authorities are expected to question the returned passengers about their plans because several elements of the case are still unclear.

From October 2022 to September, nearly 97,000 Indians were stopped while trying to enter the US illegally. That’s a fivefold increase from 2019-2020.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies