Body of stowaway found after flight from Azerbaijan

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The Independent Online
The body of a stowaway was found yesterday in the undercarriage of an aircraft that had flown for nearly seven hours from one of the former Soviet republics. Louise Jury hears immigration organisations' fears that stowing away in dangerous places is on the increase.

The British Airways 767 arrived at Gatwick Airport direct from Baku in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan on Friday night and a man's body was discovered when maintenance checks began yesterday morning.

The incident is the latest case where stowaways have attempted to sneak on to an aircraft via the undercarriage. Evidence suggests that in many cases they have been told by racketeers that they will be able to creep up into pressurised baggage holds or the passenger deck for the flight.

A British Airways spokeswoman said yesterday that an investigation had been launched into the incident: "Obviously, we will be talking to the authorities in Baku."

Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said risky attempts at immigration were increasing. "There is a global increase in the number of racketeers who take advantage of desperate people who want to flee persecution, war or deep poverty," he said.

"They take money from these people and then send them into situations which put their lives at risk. In some cases, people have been told falsely that they can climb into the aircraft through the wheel bay." He added that the Government should crack down on those operating illegal immigration operations but treat the immigrants themselves with compassion.

Nick Hardwick, of the Refugee Council, said the organisation was researching the scale of the problem. One of its concerns is that because immigration control is increasingly taking place outside the country, people are being prevented from travelling to Britain legitimately. Airlines are fined thousands of pounds if they bring in passengers who do not have correct immigration papers and most prefer not to take the risk, refusing to carry some passengers.

Increasing attempts to smuggle illegal immigrants into Britain are a by-product of the breakdown of political systems or ethnic violence in regions such as the former Yugoslavia or Soviet Union. "People try to make this sharp distinction between political refugees and economic migrants, but it is much more blurred than that," Mr Hardwick said. Political repression or social breakdown prevent people getting jobs or education, he added.

He said more effort should be made to allow refugees to put their case for being allowed to travel and to find out whether they have any chance of being allowed into their destination.

In 1996, 20-year-old Pardeep Saini survived a 10-hour flight in the wheel bay of an aircraft from India to London when his body went into a coma- like state of hibernation at temperatures that fell to -40C. His brother, Vijay, 19, died during the flight. Mr Saini said they had fled the Punjab after being accused of being Sikh militants. They were told by a racketeer in Delhi that for pounds 150 he would show them an easy way out of the country, claiming they could get into the baggage hold from the wheel bay.