© Phil Dera

Deportation The Undaunted

Swedish activist Elin Ersson is facing legal action due to her attempt to protect an Afghan asylum seeker from deportation. Did she make the right decision? Von
ZEITmagazin Nr. 6/2019

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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 the camera of her smartphone 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 is a refugee drama in real-time, and, as it later turns out, it is 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, Feb. 4, 2019, a district court in Gothenburg will start proceedings in a case to determine whether Elin 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?

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 German broadcaster 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 summer of 2015, Sweden welcomed asylum seekers with open arms. After the euphoria was over, Elin Ersson wanted to make sure humanity remained

ELIN ERSSON – In the months following her standoff on the plane, it isn't difficult to arrange a meeting with Ersson at a café 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 clownfish captured by bad guys and rescued by his timid father is Ersson's favorite movie.

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