Viral plane video featuring deported Afghan asylum seeker highlights European chasm over migrants

University student Elin Ersson in a screenshot from her Facebook video.
University student Elin Ersson in a screenshot from her Facebook video.SCREENSHOT: FACEBOOK

LONDON (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - A viral video of an activist on board a plane in Sweden stopping the deportation of an Afghan asylum seeker has cast a spotlight on Europe's deepening divisions over immigration, human rights experts said on Wednesday (July 25).

University student Elin Ersson broadcast a live video on Facebook on Monday, showing her refusing to sit down until the Afghan man was removed from the flight at Gothenburg airport.

"I'm not going to sit down until this person is off the plane," the 21-year-old says in the video, which has gone viral and been viewed at least 2.7 million times on Facebook.

"I don't want a man's life to be taken away just so you don't miss a flight," Ersson says, explaining that she is against Sweden's deportation policy, which considers Afghanistan a safe country and sends back all rejected asylum seekers.

With anti-immigration politicians raising the stakes in EU countries from Germany and Austria to Italy and Hungary, the bloc is seeking more ways to curb Mediterranean arrivals.

Arrivals have dropped to about 50,000 refugees and migrants this year from a peak of more than a million in 2015, according to UN data. But deep divisions remain among European nations.

Sweden took in 163,000 asylum seekers in 2015, resulting in a voter backlash and policy U-turn from the Social Democrat-led minority government. Ahead of Sept 9 elections, both main parties say Sweden will not return to such liberal asylum rules.

"We are in a very critical situation in Europe, we are witnessing a serious backlash against anything that is seen as foreign," Hameed Hakimi, a research associate at Chatham House, a London-based think-tank, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Hakimi said Ersson's intervention was unlikely to change the fate of the Afghan man in the video, yet such acts were important to grab the attention of governments.

"This... needs to happen more often... to have a ripple effect of this over a sustained period of time," Hakimi said.

"When communities come together they can stop deportation," he said, adding that Afghanistan was "extremely volatile".

The Swedish government could not immediately be reached for comment, and the fate of the Afghan asylum seeker was unclear.

Afghanistan's Western-backed government is fighting an intensifying war with both the Taleban and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, with many people driven from the nation by conflict and poverty.

"Persons being deported back to (Afghanistan) risk being subjected to serious human rights violations," said Madelaine Seidlitz, a lawyer with Amnesty International in Sweden.

"Amnesty is of the opinion that no one should be forcibly deported back to Afghanistan."