OSTERSUND, Sweden — A Swedish student activist stopped the deportation of an Afghan man this week by refusing to take her seat on a packed Turkish Airlines flight, and her dramatic video of the tense standoff has gone viral.
The student, Elin Ersson, initially bought a ticket because she believed that a 26-year-old man from Afghanistan was being deported to Kabul from Landvetter Airport in Gothenburg via Istanbul. When she got on the plane, the 26-year-old was not there, but an Afghan deportee in his 50s was with the Swedish authorities.
Ms. Ersson, 21, live-streamed the standoff on the flight late Monday on Facebook, and footage of the 14-minute video shows her in tears, at times being confronted by crew members and angry passengers. But she also garnered some support.
“I’m not going to sit down until this person is off the plane,” she says in the video, “because he is most likely to get killed if he is on this plane when it goes up.”
As Ms. Ersson narrates the video — which had 2.7 million views as of Wednesday afternoon — a male voice with an English accent can be heard calling her “frightening” and telling her to think of the children on the flight.
“I am doing what I can to save a person’s life,” she responds. “As long as a person is standing up, the pilot cannot take off. All I want to do is stop the deportation, and then I will comply with the rules here. This is all perfectly legal, and I have not committed a crime.”
She says that the long-running war in Afghanistan has made the security situation there not safe to send anyone back. The identity of the man in his 50s was not immediately released, nor were further details about his background or his deportation.
Swedavia, the company that runs Sweden’s main airports, said the flight had been delayed for about two hours. A representative for Turkish Airlines said that no one was immediately available for comment on Wednesday.
In the end, both the Afghan man and Ms. Ersson left the plane. It’s likely that the man’s deportation will be carried out later.
Hans Lippens, a spokesman for the Swedish Police in Gothenburg, said Ms. Ersson’s refusal to sit down constituted a civil infraction but not a crime.
“It is up to Turkish Airlines to sue the woman for the two- to three-hour delay,” he said. “There can be costs associated with delays. She has not done anything punishable from a police perspective.”
The video begins with Ms. Ersson, who is studying to become a social worker and is part of a broad network of people demonstrating against the deportation of Afghans denied asylum and residency in Sweden, walking up the aisle and explaining to perplexed passengers why she would not sit down.
At times, a stern flight attendant can be heard asking her to turn off her phone and leave the plane. Someone in the background can be heard yelling at her to sit down. She explains that the man to be deported was sitting at the back of the plane, escorted by the Swedish authorities.
“The people who have been trying to deport the old man actually pushed me and tried to forcibly move me,” Ms. Ersson says. “The pilot has the right to say that he is not allowed to be on the plane,” she adds, “and as long as he is not on the plane, then I will comply. I’m waiting for the pilot’s decision.”
The man with the English accent stands up, takes her phone and tells her to stop. A flight attendant returned it, Ms. Ersson said.
“I’m trying to change my country’s rules,” she tells a seated passenger. “He is going to die — because it’s Afghanistan.”
About six and a half minutes into the video, people start clapping in an apparent show of support. Then Ms. Ersson starts to cry.
“There’s a Turkish guy helping me out, telling me what I am doing is right,” she says, flushed. “Some people are really applauding all this what I am doing. There is a football team standing at the back. As long as they are standing, this plane is not allowed to go.”
A flight attendant says that according to the pilot, the plane was going to Istanbul, not Kabul, and that a decision would be made there. Ms. Ersson didn’t budge.
A few minutes later, a flight attendant says that the man will be removed from the plane. A child can be heard crying in the background.
“They are taking his bags out,” Ms. Ersson says, smiling. People can be heard clapping. “When he’s actually out, I will go out of the plane and comply with the rules,” she says.
She is met at the door by airport security, at which point she stops filming.
The activists are protesting the deportation of Afghans who have been denied asylum and residency in Sweden. Advocates say there are many reasons the deportation of the migrants is problematic, not the least of which is that many of them came to Sweden via Iran and no longer had homes or families to go back to.
Almost 42,000 people from Afghanistan applied for asylum in Sweden in 2015, according to the Swedish Migration Agency, plus another 4,700 over the next two years.
A spokeswoman for the organization leading Ms. Ersson’s intervention gave details by phone on Wednesday about the campaign.
A similar protest took place this month at Kastrup Airport in Copenhagen, where Mohammad Simone, a 19-year-old Afghan man, was scheduled to be deported.
Eva Marta Granqvist, 55, an artist from southern Sweden who said she and others were fighting “arbitrary” deportation decisions by the Swedish Migration Agency, recalled that they had received information that a deportation of a young gay man who had converted to Christianity was to occur earlier this month from Sweden via Denmark. Within a day, they had raised nearly $1,500 for two tickets to Kabul.
Ms. Granqvist and another woman boarded the plane.
“We ignored the instructions to sit down in our seats,” she said. “When we went farther back in the plane, we could hear how he was crying loudly and pleading to the other passengers for his life.”
“I asked people in the plane to stand up,” Ms. Granqvist said. “I explained that this was about a human life and that we together could save a human life. Many stood up.”
“Then the captain made the immediate decision not to fly and to take off the boy,” she added.
Mr. Simone is being held in a deportation center in Astorp, in southern Sweden, she said.
There have been other protests in Europe and the United States. Some pilots in Germany have refused to fly rejected asylum seekers out of the country. Virgin Atlantic has said it would no longer assist the British authorities in flying undocumented immigrants.
And United Airlines and American Airlines asked the Trump administration not to use their planes to fly migrant children separated from their parents at the border.
Christina Anderson reported from Ostersund, and Palko Karasz from London.
Orignially published in NYT.