About 300 Indian citizens heading to Central America were sequestered in a French airport for a third day Saturday after a dramatic police operation prompted by a tip that those aboard might be victims of human trafficking, authorities said.
Those aboard included children and families. The youngest passenger is a toddler of 21 months, and among the children are several unaccompanied minors, according to the local civil protection agency.
Two of the passengers have been detained as part of a special investigation into suspected human trafficking by an organized criminal group, according to the Paris prosecutor’s office. Prosecutors wouldn’t comment on what kind of trafficking was alleged, or whether the ultimate destination was the U.S., which has seen a surge in Indians crossing the Mexico-U.S. border this year.
French authorities hung white tarps across the soaring bay windows of the small Vatry Airport in Champagne country to ensure privacy for the passengers held inside. The unmarked A340 plane, grounded since Thursday, can be seen parked near the terminal. Other flights were canceled or rerouted as the airport was transformed into the hub of a vast trafficking investigation.
The 15 crew members of the Legend Airlines charter flight — en route from Fujairah airport in the United Arab Emirates to Managua, Nicaragua — were questioned and released, according to a lawyer for the Romania-based airline.
A surreal holiday weekend scene has been unfolding in the Vatry Airport since Thursday. The flight stopped for refueling, and was grounded by French police based on an anonymous tip that it could be carrying victims of human trafficking, the prosecutor’s office said.
The unusual and sudden probe disrupted air travel as police cordoned off the airport and flights were disrupted, according to the administration for the Marne region. The airfield is used primarily for charter and cargo flights.
Police sequestered the passengers in the airport, where they spent two nights on camp beds while the investigation continues, according to an official with the Marne administration. The official said the passengers initially remained in the plane, surrounded by police on the tarmac, but were then transferred into the main hall of the airport to sleep.
Emergency workers, a doctor and local volunteers are on the scene and the passengers are being given regular meals, medical care and access to toilets and showers, said Patrick Jaloux, head of the regional civil protection service. A special section of the terminal has been equipped for families.
As the ordeal drags on, ”we are trying to find ways to help them pass the time” and reduce their distress, Jaloux told the Associated Press.
Indian consular representatives are stationed at the airport and working with the French government ”for the welfare of the Indians” and for an ”early resolution of the situation,” the Indian Embassy in France posted Saturday on X.
Legend Airlines lawyer Liliana Bakayoko said the company is cooperating with French authorities, denies any role in possible human trafficking and ”has not committed any infraction.”
A “partner” company that chartered the plane was responsible for verifying the identity documents of each passenger, and communicated their passport information to the airline 48 hours before the flight, Bakayoko told The Associated Press.
The customer had chartered multiple flights on Legend Airlines from Dubai to Nicaragua, and a few other flights had already made the journey without incident, she said. She would not identify the customer, saying only that it is not a European company.
The crew members, who are of multiple nationalities, “are rather traumatized,” she said. “They wrote me messages that they want to see their families for Christmas.”
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 in the Caribbean as well as far-flung countries in Africa or Asia, because of relaxed or visa-free entry requirements for some countries. Sometimes charter flights are used for the journey. From there, the migrants travel north by bus with the help of smugglers.
The influx of Indian migrants through Mexico has increased from fewer than 3,000 in 2022 to more than 11,000 from January to November this year, according to the Mexican Immigration Agency. Indian citizens were arrested 41,770 times entering the U.S. illegally from Mexico in the U.S. government’s budget year that ended Sept. 30, more than double from 18,308 the previous year.