Passengers had valid visas, says lawyer for charter airline in ‘donkey flight’ investigation

Twenty-five of the mostly Indian passengers, bound for Nicaragua, have now claimed asylum in France

Shweta Sharma
Wednesday 27 December 2023 14:16

Related: Airbus A340 with 303 Indians held in France over trafficking concerns, lands in Mumbai

Passengers on a flight that was grounded in France for four days over suspicions of human trafficking had valid documents and visas, a lawyer for Romania-based charter carrier Legend Airlines said.

The airline’s Airbus A340 arrived in Mumbai, India on Tuesday carrying 276 passengers after its original flight to Nicaragua from the UAE was grounded in rural Vatry, in the Champagne region, where it had stopped to refuel.

The Nicaragua-bound passengers, most of whom were from India, were held after authorities received an anonymous tip-off that some passengers might be “victims of human trafficking”.

French authorities were investigating allegations that it could be a “donkey flight”, a term used when migrants attempt to reach countries such as the US, UK and Canada by first landing in other nearby countries with less strict entry requirements.

A lawyer acting for Legend Airlines, Liliana Bakayoko, told the Indian Express newspaper that a non-European company had chartered the aircraft, but refused to disclose any further details.

“The flight was chartered by a company whose name I won’t disclose at this stage because Legend Airlines wants to protect its clients,” she said.

“The flight was operated as a charter flight. The client hired the plane, hired the crew, and chose the starting point and the arrival point.”

The lawyer said that “some very high authority” had “provided an anonymous signal about [the possibility of] human trafficking”.

Indian passengers who travelled to France on a Legend Airlines Airbus A340 arrive at an airport in Mumbai after their flight was grounded in France for four days

Men, women and children, including a baby, were among the passengers, she said.

“So, families, entire families are also there. Many were in possession of valid ID documents, valid tickets, and valid visas. And some of them even had return tickets and hotel reservations,” she added.

“So, for now, we have absolutely no proof that any of the passengers intended to go beyond Nicaragua to the United States or Canada, or to any other country.”

The plane was grounded for four days in rural France

Indian nationals are required to obtain a visa prior to travelling to Nicaragua.

Of the 303 passengers who took off from the UAE on the original flight, 25 requested asylum in France, including some minors.

Two passengers were initially detained as part of a human trafficking investigation, but were released after appearing before a judge, the Paris prosecutor’s office said.

The lawyer said India was the only country “that expressed the willingness to help and to act quickly” to take the passengers after the UAE refused to take them back.

There were chaotic scenes at Vatry airport last week as police took over the facility and the terminal filled up with media and local officials. Volunteers installed cots and ensured that regular meals and showers were provided for those being held there. The airport turned into a makeshift courtroom on Sunday as judges, lawyers and interpreters carried out emergency hearings to determine the next steps.

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