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World News

Flight carrying 300 Indian citizens grounded at French airport after tip-off passengers are human trafficking victims | World News

today23/12/2023

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Around 300 Indian travellers are stuck in a French airport after their flight was grounded in a human trafficking investigation.

Those on board the Romania-based charter company Legend Airlines plane from Fujairah airport in the United Arab Emirates to Managua, in Nicaragua, included families and children.

The youngest passenger is a 21-month-old toddler while some of the children are unaccompanied, according to the local civil protection agency.

The A340 plane has been grounded since Thursday, when it stopped for fuelling at the small Vatry Airport, in the Champagne region of northeast France, after a tip-off those on board might be victims of people smugglers.

Two people have been detained and special investigators are questioning the other passengers, the Paris prosecutor’s office said.

Prosecutors wouldn’t comment on the kind of trafficking alleged, or whether the ultimate destination of the passengers was likely to be the US, which has seen a large rise in the number of Indians crossing the Mexico-US border this year.

The plane reported to carry some 300 Indian citizens parks at the Vatry airport, eastern France, Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023 in Vatry. About 300 Indian citizens heading to Central America were sequestered in a French airport for a third day Saturday because of an investigation into suspected human trafficking, authorities said. The 15 crew members of the Legend Airlines charter flight en route from United Arab Emirates to Nicaragua were questioned and released, according to a lawyer for the small Romania-based airline. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Image:
The plane has been grounded since Thursday. Pic: AP

White canvas has been hung across the airport’s bay windows by authorities to protect the privacy of the those inside.

Other flights were cancelled or rerouted as the airport was transformed into the hub of a vast human trafficking investigation.

Passengers sleep on camp beds

The 15 crew members have been questioned and released, according to a lawyer for the airline, who said they are deeply shaken by what happened.

Passengers have been held in the airport, where they have spent two nights on camp beds while the investigation continues, according to an official with the local administration.

Emergency workers, Red Cross workers, a doctor and local volunteers have arrived at the scene to look after the needs of the passengers, including providing regular meals, medical care and access to toilets and showers, the administration said in a statement on Saturday.

A special section of the terminal has been equipped for families, and Indian consular representatives are visiting regularly, the administration said.

Canvas prevent to see inside the Vatry airport, Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023 in Vatry, eastern France. About 300 Indian citizens heading to Central America were sequestered in a French airport for a third day Saturday because of an investigation into suspected human trafficking, authorities said. The 15 crew members of the Legend Airlines charter flight en route from United Arab Emirates to Nicaragua were questioned and released, according to a lawyer for the small Romania-based airline. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Image:
Canvas put up to protect passengers’ privacy. Pic: AP

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The Indian Embassy in France posted on X that embassy staff had obtained consular access to the passengers.

“We are investigating the situation and ensuring the wellbeing of passengers,” it said.

Airline denies role in possible human trafficking

Legend Airlines lawyer Liliana Bakayoko said the company denies any role in possible human trafficking, and welcomed the release of the plane’s crew after questioning as “good news for the airline”.

A “partner” company that chartered the plane was responsible for verifying the identity documents of each passenger, and communicated the passengers’ passport information to the airline 48 hours before the flight, Ms Bakayoko said.

The customer, which she would not identify but said was not a European company, had chartered multiple flights on Legend Airlines from Dubai to Nicaragua, some of which had already made the journey without incident, she said.

The crew members, who are of multiple nationalities, “are rather traumatised”, she said, adding: “They wrote me messages that they want to see their families for Christmas.”

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While it is not certain the Indians’ destination was the US, Nicaragua has frequently been used as a springboard for migrants because of relaxed or visa-free entry requirements for some nationalities.

Charter flights are sometimes used to make the journey before migrants travel north by bus with the help of smugglers.

The US is dealing with record numbers of people trying to reach the US border from Mexico with the issue of border security becoming a key Republican line of attack ahead of the 2024 election.



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