A Swedish activist is facing legal action for stopping a plane from flying with an Afghan deportee on board. While she may have had good intentions, the outcome took an unexpected turn. Did she make the right decision?
Early in the evening of July 23, 2018, a video is posted on Facebook. It is a close-up of a young woman with a flushed face, blonde hair and dark-green glasses. Elin Ersson, 21, is walking up the aisle of a Turkish Airlines jet that is set to fly from Gothenburg to Istanbul. She is speaking English with a Swedish accent into her smartphone camera and livestreaming the scene on Facebook.
On this plane, she says, there is a person "who is going to be deported to Afghanistan, where there is war, and he is going to be killed." Then she adds: "I am doing what I can to save a person's life." Thousands of people watch the video live online as Ersson refuses to take her seat if the refugee remains on board. The annoyed faces of impatient passengers loom in the background and her eyes periodically fill with tears. At one point, the picture shakes as someone tries to grab her smartphone. Finally, the pilot allows Ersson and the Afghan refugee to disembark. Some of the passengers applaud. It's a refugee drama in real-time, and, as it later turns out, it's all a misunderstanding.
The video is exactly 14 minutes and six seconds long. It is of medium quality — shaky, and shot in vertical format. Yet despite this — or perhaps because of it — the footage quickly goes viral around the world. People share it in Germany, the United States, Afghanistan, Egypt, Russia and Turkey, with many calling the young Swede a "hero" and a "hope for humanity." Their social media messages are adorned with hearts and clapping emojis. Some 50,000 Facebook users watched the video on the evening it was posted, and thus far, a total of 5.4 million people have clicked on it. According to a London-based production company, which produced a short film called Grounded about the daring rescue, more than 13 million people worldwide have seen it.
At a time when governments are collapsing under the weight of their migration policies and right-wing populists are taking power, the clip appears to provide hope for many liberals. It sends a message: Despite all of this hateful rhetoric, there are still people willing to stand up for what is good.
But now there is another version of this story. And it isn't about courage or compassion; it's about whether or not this spectacular rescue mission was actually a crime.
On Monday, February 4, 2019, a district court in Gothenburg will start proceedings in a case to determine whether Ersson broke Swedish aviation law on that day in July. Many legal complaints were lodged against her, but they didn't come from Turkish Airlines or the airport operator, as one might expect. Rather, they came from private citizens. According to the state prosecutor, most of the complaints came from people who had watched or read about the video. Others came from people on the plane. "Her actions caused a lot of confusion, irritation and worry inside the plane. Some of the passengers were quite upset about it," says prosecutor James von Reis. If Ersson is found guilty, she will face a fine or up to six months in jail.
But who is this young woman? Is she a hero or a criminal? And what became of the asylum-seeker she was trying to save?
ZEITmagazin and Deutsche Welle, who worked together to report this story, spoke with both of them and with many people who know them. Wherever possible, the information has been verified through court documents, letters from lawyers and inquiries made to Swedish and Afghan authorities. It is a case that reveals much about the contradictions of refugee policy — and about the power, and powerlessness, of the individual.
In the months following her standoff on the plane, it isn't difficult to arrange a meeting with Ersson at a cafe in Gothenburg. She is studying to become a social worker, and evenings work best for her.
Sitting across from the 21-year-old, it is striking how soft her facial features still look. Her blonde hair is pulled into an unruly pigtail, highlighted by shimmering, light-green strands. She is wearing a letter-block beaded bracelet on her right wrist reminiscent of those worn by small children and she has a tattoo on her left forearm written in Viking runes: "Just Keep Swimming," a quote from Finding Nemo. The story of a small clown fish captured by bad guys and rescued by his timid father is Ersson's favorite movie.
Politics, she says, have always played a role in her life. Her father and grandfather were both social democrats and proud to live in Sweden — a country where people take care of one another. Ersson explains how, even as a schoolgirl, she would always get angry when someone was teased because of their skin color, religion or sexual orientation.
Ersson was 18 years old in the summer of 2015 when thousands of underage asylum-seekers began arriving in Sweden and the country opened its arms to welcome them in much the same way that Germany did. Asylum-seekers were greeted with clothes and flowers, and teachers at Ersson's school considered housing some of them in the gymnasium. But just like in Germany, the initial euphoria quickly subsided. By the end of the year, 163,000 asylum-seekers had come to Sweden — 163,000 in a country with a population of about 10 million. Measured as a share of the population, Sweden took in more people than any other European country.
In November 2015, Sweden's deputy prime minister, a member of the Green Party, broke into tears when she announced together with the prime minister that Sweden would be drastically tightening its asylum laws. Underage asylum-seekers would no longer be allowed to bring their families into the country, permanent residence permits were canceled and border controls were put in place on the Oresund bridge between Denmark and Sweden. For Ersson, Sweden has become another country since then — one that would rather seal itself off than care for others.
For a long time, she saw asylum-seekers and refugees primarily in the news. But in 2017, when she was 20 years old, she moved to Gothenburg and met young Afghans for the first time. A group of asylum-seekers was staging an 11-day sit-in to protest their deportation back to Afghanistan and Ersson sat with them for a few days. "I needed something that was larger than myself," she says during the interview in Gothenburg. After the sit-in, they began marching across the city every Friday to the Swedish Migration Agency and handing in reports about the never-ending war in Afghanistan. Ersson and her friends were convinced that sending people back to the country meant sending them to their deaths. But their protests did nothing to change Sweden's deportation policy.
Read more: Germany sees drop in asylum claims in 2018
The fate of the asylum-seekers — many of them not much younger than her — clearly demonstrated to Ersson what other members of her generation have had to experience. But unlike her, they saw the future as a threat. Under Swedish asylum law, refugees under the age of 18 are allowed to attend school, learn Swedish and live with a host family. Some of them are even allowed to work. Those over 18, however, lose these rights. Ersson has stories to tell of Afghan high school students who became depressed about their asylum status and stopped going to school; about teenagers who had to move out of their Swedish host parents' homes when they turned 18; or about young people who committed suicide after receiving their deportation notice.
In a time of hardship, Ersson wanted to do her part for humanity. On Sundays, she met with other volunteers and young asylum-seekers at a support group. During long sessions, they discussed who needed housing or a lawyer, and who wanted to learn Swedish, or math, or English. It was, she says, quite fulfilling. "When I started to work with refugees, I was just being friendly," she explains. "But they treated me as if I was the best person in the world."
While deportations became increasingly acceptable for many Swedes, for Ersson, they were becoming more and more reprehensible. She remembers her first deportation blockade very clearly. On a cold and clear Tuesday in October 2017, Ersson drove south of Gothenburg to a pre-removal refugee detention center in Kallered — a low-rise building which was called "the warehouse" by immigration authorities, according to Ersson. Around 100 people were there protesting the deportation of 15 young Afghans whose ages were unclear. Several of them said they were still underage, while others said that they had been underage when they applied for asylum.
Dozens of protesters sat in front of a bus that was supposed to bring the asylum-seekers to Gothenburg airport. Just before it was about to leave, the police began to disperse the demonstrators. Time slowed down for Ersson as she saw her friends lie down in front of the bus. "My mind suddenly went blank," she would later say, and that she did what they did almost as though she were on autopilot. She says she lay crying on the street until a police officer yanked her off the ground. The bus started moving, but there were fewer people on board than before: some of the asylum-seekers had been allowed to stay in Sweden so their cases could be reviewed.
"It was an interesting experience," says Ersson at the cafe in Gothenburg. "The police wanted to deport these people, but we were able to stop it." According to her recollection, most of the asylum-seekers were rescued that day. According to the Göteborgs-Posten newspaper, though, only five of the deportation cases were suspended. Ten Afghans were flown to Kabul that night.
Gotene is a small town surrounded by farms and located two hours northeast of Gothenburg. This is where Ismail K.'s family lives, on the first floor of a public housing block. During a visit from ZEITmagazin, his mother and two sisters describe how difficult their journey had been. They fled from Afghanistan to Iran after the father was killed by the Taliban in the late 1990s. They belong to the Hazara minority and speak Dari, a language related to Persian. After 15 years of living in exile, part of the eight-member family moved to Sweden, but the oldest son, Ismail K., was already an adult and was not allowed to enter the country legally. In summer 2014, the 22-year-old arrived in Sweden alone as an illegal asylum-seeker. The black-and-white photo on his asylum application shows a young man with a gaunt face and tired eyes.
Ismail K. dreamed about learning Swedish and getting an education. But instead, his days were spent waiting for official letters that contained nothing more than standard answers. His sisters were allowed to learn Swedish, to go to school and to work, but he wasn't permitted to do any of these things and he spent his days depressed in bed. Because he couldn't speak Swedish, he had no friends, and because he had no friends, he hardly left the apartment. "We were his best friends," says his 21-year-old sister Basireh, her face carefully made up beneath her headscarf.
In November 2016, Ismail's application for asylum in Sweden was rejected, as was his appeal in February 2017. He then tried his luck in Hamburg, Germany, but was not allowed to remain there either. Those whose application had been rejected in Sweden may not apply for asylum in Germany. For months, no one heard from Ismail. But then, around the end of the year, he called his family again to tell them he had been arrested shortly after crossing the Swedish border and brought to the pre-removal detention center in Malmo.
After five months in Malmo, Ismail, along with some other asylum-seekers, tried to prevent the deportation of one of their fellow prisoners. An argument broke out with the prison guards and the police intervened. As punishment, he was transferred to another detention center — to the "warehouse" in Kallered, south of Gothenburg. There he shared a six-square-meter cell with two other Afghans.
"He wasn't doing well mentally," one of his cellmates, 21-year-old Mohammad Mahdi, wrote in a Facebook message. "Ismail was having suicidal thoughts." The two went on a hunger strike to protest their imprisonment, and a picture taken during this period shows Ismail with sunken cheeks and pale skin, a black shirt hanging loosely over his slender body.
During his detention, Ismail still held out hope that his deportation could be averted and a new lawyer had requested that his case be reviewed. But then came the incident in the gymnasium. In a telephone interview with DW, Ismail K. says he had brought a plastic knife into the gymnasium to cut an apple. He said a guard then shouted and shoved him and that he complained to the guard's boss, even receiving an apology. "But later, they wrote in my file that I had tried to harm myself or others with a knife," he says. "That was a lie, and a pretext used to deport me."
On the morning of July 23, a Monday, the guards removed Ismail K. from his cell at 8 a.m. He remembers three police officers waiting for him outside. One of them had Iranian roots and translated what the others were saying: "Tomorrow you will be released." Ismail, who had never given up hope, believed them. Only later, when they were already sitting in the police car, did the interpreter admit the truth: Ismail was to be flown back to Afghanistan. This is the Afghan's version of events. ZEITmagazin contacted the Swedish Migration Agency for comment but they demurred, saying they do not discuss individual cases.
On that same Monday, at around two in the afternoon, Elin Ersson is leaving her job at a home for the mentally ill, where she was working during the semester break. She is wearing a gray T-shirt on and a beige overcoat. Rays of sunlight break out from behind the clouds. As she does every day, she calls one of her activist friends, who has just heard about an imminent deportation, having found out about it on a Facebook chat group after several asylum-seekers in the Kallered center had heard something and alerted an activist about it.
A young man named Ismail was picked up this morning in Kallered, says Ersson's friend, and he is already on the way to the airport. In four hours, he will be sitting in a plane bound for Istanbul. After that, the trip will continue on to Kabul.
This is how Ismail entered Elin's life — as an emergency.
Normally, Ersson and her activist friends would prepare a blockade well in advance, but there is no time for that today. In the group chat, there is a rumor that a second man has also been picked up, but the information is vague. Together with Ismail's sister Basireh, who had been added to the group chat that morning, they try and find a solution for Ismail. An activist from Malmo, who a week earlier had stopped a deportation flight in Copenhagen, is approached for advice and they decide to quickly get some money together to buy a ticket for the flight. At first, Basireh wants to board so she can see her brother. But it quickly becomes clear that she could endanger her visa status by doing so.
Someone suggests that Ersson board the plane — she has her passport with her and can get to the airport in time. She hesitates, knowing that she would much prefer to have someone there with her, but then she tells herself that a young man's life is hanging in the balance. While Ersson and a friend race down the highway toward the airport, she reads another activist her passport number over the phone in order to purchase the plane ticket. The only seat available on the flight is in first class.
Read more: Sweden to deport 'world's oldest refugee'
When Ersson arrives in the passenger hall, Ismail's sisters fall into her arms. They tell her about their life on the run, about Ismail, about how nobody is helping them. The mother begins to cry. Her son is not a criminal, she insists, something she will repeat over and over again, why is he being treated like one? He has nobody in Afghanistan, she says, his entire family is in Sweden!
"I promised I would help them," says Ersson.
"Elin hugged me, as if she had known me for a long time," Basireh recalls.
Other asylum-seekers and activists rush to the airport and hand out flyers with Ismail's picture. "This man is supposed to be deported," they tell travelers passing by. "If you see him on board your aircraft, please remain standing. The pilot is not allowed to take off until everyone is seated!"
Ersson ascends the escalator and continues to the security check. She shows her passport and her ticket for flight TK 1800 to Istanbul before walking down the hallway toward the gate, stopping at the women's restroom. Later, she'll remember looking at herself in the mirror. "I wanted to throw up, but I couldn't," she says. "I had to help this family."
Ismail doesn't know that his family is waiting for him at Gothenburg airport, nor does he know that a student activist named Elin Ersson is trying to save him. Although asylum-seekers have the legal right to speak with their families or a lawyer before deportation, his family waits in vain for him to call.
"When I was picked up, I asked the guards and the police to allow me to call my mother," he told DW. "They didn't give me the opportunity."
Handcuffed, he was driven for several hours across Sweden, only learning of the destination once they had arrived. The Swedish authorities hadn't taken him to Göteborg Landvetter Airport, but to a prison in Stockholm. Activists say that such changes in location are used to circumvent possible protests and ensure deportation goes off without a hitch.
Ismail is locked in a cell with a single bunk. "The light was always on," he says. "You couldn't tell the difference between night and day."
Ersson boards the plane with a printout of Ismail's picture in one hand and her smartphone in the other. Her eyes scan the last row, where deportees are usually seated, but there is no one there who looks like the man in the picture.
Ismail is not on board.
A flight attendant confirms as much. But way in the back, there is a 52-year-old Afghan who is being deported. Taken by surprise, Ersson has to make a snap decision. Later, she says that she knew nothing about the man, but that she was certain he was being deported to Afghanistan. "So I decided to stand up for him," she says.
Read more: Afghanistan: Sent back to a war zone
She tells the other passengers that she refuses take her seat as long as the 52-year-old Afghan is on board. She turns on her smartphone camera after a security agent begins to grab at her. And she activates Facebook's livestream so that Ismail's family can see that he is not aboard the plane. A man from the UK tries to grab her phone away while a Turkish man encourages her. The other passengers begin talking and some of them stand up.
"It's your country's rules," says one of them in English.
"I'm trying to change my country's rules," responds Ersson.
"But you're preventing all these passengers from going to their destination," a voice is heard saying.
"But they are not going to die — he is going to die," she says
"How do you know that?" says the voice.
"Because it's Afghanistan," she says, blinking and adjusting her glasses as her eyes fill with tears.
As Ersson maintains her position in the aisle, shouts and whispers swirl around her, joined by the signal tones for the cabin crew. Finally, the flight supervisor tells her the Afghan man will be allowed to disembark. Ersson's mouth tightens awkwardly and she wipes her damp, twitching eyelids.
Some of the passengers begin to clap, as if an emotionally stirring play has just concluded. Ersson nods almost imperceptibly. The asylum-seeker is taken off the plane through the rear door, while Ersson exits through the front. As the sky over the tarmac comes into view, the video ends.
She descends the stairs and security personnel take her back to the terminal. Later, she describes how the security agent shouted at her: "How could a woman defend someone like him? He is a really bad person!"
Ismail K. is deported to Afghanistan from Stockholm, landing in Kabul two days after Ersson's protest on the plane in Gothenburg. Aid workers from the International Organization for Migration meet him at Kabul airport and bring him to a run-down accommodation they have set up for returnees. Hotel Spinzar is a bright green concrete building in Kabul's old town. After a few days, he hears about another asylum-seeker who had hanged himself only three weeks prior in a room on the hotel's fourth floor. Jamal Naser Mahmodi was 23 years old and had been living in Hamburg, Germany. He was among 69 Afghans who were deported on German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer's 69th birthday.
Ismail leaves the hotel in panic and moves in with an Afghan friend from Sweden who had been deported before him. When contacted for a meeting by a DW correspondent a few weeks after his arrival, Ismail is apprehensive. He is afraid that someone could find out about his family living abroad and kidnap him to force his relatives to pay a ransom. After he finally agrees to meet, he sends a friend ahead of time to check out the journalist and make sure that everything is safe. Ismail arrives a half hour later, a tall, thin 26-year-old with a nervous gaze that wanders back and forth.
"I don't want to be seen with you," he tells the DW correspondent, who provides the following impressions. The market district Karte Char is located near the university. Locals come here to eat and shop. Wearing a bright yellow sweatshirt and sporting a stylish haircut, Ismail looks like a tourist among all the men walking around wearing long robes. He says he hasn't slept or eaten properly for three days and he wakes up frequently in the night, because he doesn't know what he is going to do next. He has no money and no place to stay long term. Even the sedatives he brought from Sweden are not helping.
So far, he has only dared to venture out once to pick up his Afghan identity papers. Otherwise, he hides in his room. He seldom checks in with his family in Gotene, and when he does call, he keeps it short.
He was 6 years old when he left Afghanistan with his family, he says. Other than his one friend, he knows no one here. When asked what he plans to do now, he talks about his family in Sweden, but he has no answer when asked how he might return. "Maybe someone will see this and come to help me," he says on the video that was posted in August on DW's website. "I'm desperate and want nothing more than to return to the arms of my family," he says.
The video taken on the plane that day has transformed Ersson into a symbolic figure around the world. She is invited to international conferences and thousands of people have written to her. She is now the girl who stopped a plane — the face of resistance to Europe's asylum policy. While some people revere her for this, others despise her.
Refugee haters and online trolls taunt her as "naive" and "idiotic" on internet forums. On YouTube someone writes: "Lock her in a room overnight with three Afghan men." She periodically gets letters that are meant to intimidate her. A neo-Nazi from Norway, whose letter she particularly remembers, called her a "traitor to her kind."
Then, it emerged that the Afghan man on board the Turkish Airlines flight had a checkered past. Before the attempted deportation, he had spent six months in prison for assault. According to reporting from ZEITmagazin and DW, the man's name is Bismallah S., aged 59, and not 52 as had been thought. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations in Kabul confirmed his identity upon request.
Elin Ersson, who wanted to rescue Ismail K, had instead ended up helping a criminal.
According to court documents, Bismallah S. had used a USB cable to whip his wife and two daughters, aged 13 and 14, in their apartment in Sweden. He had lost his temper after his daughter had only turned the volume down on the TV, instead of turning it off. According to his own account, he said he felt "threatened" by life with his family. His wife always spoke badly about him to their children, he told the court, adding that she and their daughters would slander him so that he would be expelled from Sweden. His deportation order had already been in place before the trial.
According to the Afghan Refugee Ministry, Bismallah S. was deported from Sweden about a month after Ersson's standoff on the plane, landing in Kabul on August 30, 2018. He is from Herat Province, but the ministry doesn't know if he returned there.
When asked about him, Ersson emphasizes that she knew nothing about the man and had not been following his case. "There was probably a good reason why he was in prison," she says. "Nevertheless, he doesn't deserve to be deported to die back in Afghanistan." She then makes the point that the abolition of the death penalty was a major achievement for Swedish law, and, in her opinion, deportations to Afghanistan are equivalent to the death penalty.
Ersson still seems convinced that she did something good on that day in July. More than anything, though, it is possible to say that her intentions were good.
After a few months in Kabul, Ismail K.'s trail goes cold. His local mobile number doesn't work anymore and his family in Gotene no longer responds to inquiries. Has something happened to him? Is he again on the run to Europe? The only person who finally responds is his sister Nazanin, who lives in Turkey. She says in a Facebook message that Ismail is still living in Kabul, but that he is suffering from serious psychological problems. "Our biggest worry is that he will become a drug addict," she says.
When asked if it would be possible to speak to him again for this article, she responds a few days later by saying that Ismail "feels insecure" because everyone knows his face after the DW video was broadcast. "As you know, there are many kidnappings in our country. If you have relatives abroad, kidnappers assume you have a lot of money." Because of this, she writes, Ismail does not want to do any more interviews. Nazanin cannot go into more detail — everything she knows about her brother's condition she finds out from her sisters and mother in Gotene.
During one last phone call at the end of the year, Ersson sounds confident. Another meeting wouldn't be a problem, she says, adding that she would be in Berlin again for a conference in December. She isn't much concerned about the state prosecutor's preliminary investigation. There has never been a case like this one, she explains, and says it's unclear if she committed a crime or not. "Even if they do decide that I broke a law, I will probably only receive a fine of a few hundred euros," she says.
But after her indictment by the state prosecutor, Ersson withdraws from the public eye. According to her lawyer, she was "disappointed" by the prosecution's decision, because she had hoped that it "would not come to a trial and the state prosecutor would have classified her actions as legal." Ersson herself is no longer reachable. All emails, text messages and phone calls go unanswered. She cancels her appearance at the conference in Berlin on short notice. But Ersson will soon appear in public once again — on February 4, when the Gothenburg district court deliberates her case.
About this story: Khuê Pham, an author for German weekly ZEITmagazin, met Elin Ersson in September 2018 at the Z2X conference for young visionaries organized by ZEIT ONLINE. For this article, she met Ersson again in Gothenburg and visited Ismail K's family in Gotene. Deutsche Welle (DW) interviewed Ismail K. in Kabul multiple times after his deportation. His last name has been abbreviated to protect his identity.