This woman refused to take her seat on an airplane. Here’s why that’s such a big deal

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Kayleigh Dray
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Elin Ersson protests deportation of Afghan asylum seeker

Elin Ersson began live-streaming her dramatic protest after flight attendants demanded she sit down for departure.

When Elin Ersson learned that an Afghan asylum seeker was due to be deported from her home country of Sweden, the student activist knew she had to take action.

According to local reports, Ersson tracked down the details of the flight which would see the asylum seeker flown from Gothenburg to Turkey, and bought herself a ticket of her own. As she entered the plane, she began to live-stream her dramatic protest, which sees her refuse to sit down until the man was removed from the plane.

In the footage – which has been viewed over two million times since being published earlier this week – Ersson can be heard explaining to flight attendants and passengers that she does not agree with Swedish deportation policy, which classifies Afghanistan as a safe country and sends rejected asylum seekers back.

Pointing out that Afghanistan is a country where the man “will most likely get killed”, she insists that she is prepared to do whatever she has to do “to save a person’s life”.

“I don’t want a man’s life to be taken away just because you don’t want to miss your flight,” Ersson can be heard saying.

“I am not going to sit down until the person is off the plane.”

The video shows how first the airline crew and then several other passengers urge her to sit down and to stop filming.

“I am doing what I can to save a person’s life. As long as a person is standing up the pilot cannot take off,” Ersson informs one steward.

“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.”

As the standoff continues, a man – who appears to be English – tries to seize Ersson’s phone and stop her from filming the incident.

Growing visibly emotional, the lone activist asks him: “What is more important, a life, or your time? … I want him to get off the plane because he is not safe in Afghanistan. I am trying to change my country’s rules, I don’t like them. It is not right to send people to hell.”

However, as the tense standoff continues, the mood on board the flight seems to shift somewhat – and a small number of other passengers can be heard joining Ersson in her standing protest.

Eventually, both Ersson and the asylum seeker are removed from the plane – sparking a smattering of applause throughout the aircraft.

According to the BBC, the Afghan man had originally been escorted on to the flight by the Swedish Prison and Probation Service.

“Asylum cases are decided by the immigration office,” press officer Ulf Mossberg told the news outlet. “If they make a decision that someone will be deported they hand the person to the national border police. The police then can ask us to perform that transportation.

“What happened on this flight was that the pilot of the plane decided that our personnel and the Afghan man were not allowed to fulfil the flight.”

Deutsche Welle has since reported that the Afghan man remains in custody and will be deported at a later date. The publication also said that Ersson is likely to face legal consequences over her actions, as plane passengers are obliged to follow the captain’s orders.

Whatever the result, there is no denying that this incident has thrown Sweden’s strict policy on asylum seekers under a harsh light – particularly as the country heads for an election in September in which the far-right, on an anti-immigration platform, are expected to perform well.

According to The Independent, Sweden has recorded 400,000 asylum applications since 2012, the equivalent of one for every 25 members of the population.

The country briefly suspended deportations to Afghanistan earlier this year, after two particularly devastating attacks by the Taliban in Kabul, which saw over 100 people killed. Despite this, Sweden’s Migration Board stands by its view that Afghanistan is a safe country of origin for failed asylum seekers.

And, worryingly, the situation is similar in the United Kingdom. Indeed, shortly after the Windrush scandal was made public, it was revealed that at least 1,000 highly skilled migrants seeking indefinite leave to remain (ILR) in the UK are wrongly facing deportation under a section of the Immigration Act – which was designed, in part, to tackle terrorists and individuals judged to be a threat to national security. 

So, while many will not agree with Ersson’s anti-deportation stance, we need to talk about it. Because, at a time when xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment are on the rise across Europe, it’s inspiring to see a woman peacefully standing up for her beliefs – and for the rights and safety of her fellow human beings.

Image: Elin Erssojn / Facebook


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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.