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276 Indians stuck in a French airport for days for a human trafficking probe arrive in India

by Staff

A charter plane grounded in France for a human trafficking investigation has arrived in India carrying 276 Indians who had been blocked inside a rural French airport for days

Upon arrival in Mumbai, the passengers filed out of the airport without speaking publicly about what they’d been through or where they would go next. Carrying backpacks or small suitcases, some wore hoods or masks to conceal their identities.

A total of 303 passengers had originally boarded the Legend Airlines A340 plane last week in Fujairah airport in the United Arab Emirates for a flight to Managua, Nicaragua. When the plane stopped in France’s Vatry Airport in Champagne country for refueling Thursday, it was grounded by police based on an anonymous tip that it could be carrying human trafficking victims.

The Vatry airport was requisitioned by police for days. Local officials, medics and volunteers installed cots and ensured regular meals and showers for those held inside. Then it turned into a makeshift courtroom Sunday as judges, lawyers and interpreters filled the terminal to carry out emergency hearings to determine the next steps.

The plane was authorized to leave Monday and took off for Mumbai. Local French authorities said that 276 of the original 303 passengers boarded the flight to India, and 25 others requested asylum in France.

The asylum-seekers, who include five children, were transferred to a special zone in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport for processing, it said.

The passengers grounded in France had included a 21-month-old child and several unaccompanied minors.

The remaining two passengers were initially detained as part of a human trafficking investigation but were released Monday after appearing before a judge, the Paris prosecutor’s office said. The judge named them as ‘’assisted witnesses” to the case, a special status under French law that allows time for further investigation and could lead to eventual charges or to the case being dropped.

Prosecutors wouldn’t comment on whether the passengers’ ultimate destination could have been the U.S., which has seen a surge in Indians crossing the Mexico-U.S. border this year.

French authorities are working to determine the aim of the original flight, and opened a judicial inquiry into activities by an organized criminal group helping foreigners enter or stay in a country illegally, the prosecutor’s office said.

It did not specify whether human trafficking — which the U.N. defines as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of people through force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit” — is still suspected.

Some lawyers at Sunday’s hearings protested authorities’ handling of the situation and the passengers’ rights, suggesting that police and prosecutors overreacted to the anonymous tip.

The Indian Embassy tweeted its thanks to French officials for ensuring that the Indians could go home.

Legend Airlines lawyer Liliana Bakayoko said some passengers didn’t want to go to India because they had paid for a tourism trip to Nicaragua. The airline has denied any role in possible human trafficking.

The U.S. government has designated Nicaragua as one of several countries deemed as failing to meet minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking. Nicaragua has also been used as a migratory springboard for people fleeing poverty or conflict because of relaxed or visa-free entry requirements for some countries. Sometimes charter flights are used for the journey.

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Angela Charlton reported from Paris. Christophe Ena and Boubkar Benzebat contributed to this report from Vatry, France.

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