One Swedish student has reminded us of how effective individual action can be

Without the voice of a crowd or the backing of a big corporation you can feel ineffectual, but activism can start on a small level

Katy Fallon
Wednesday 25 July 2018 16:22 BST
Swedish student single-handedly prevents deportation of Afghan asylum seeker by refusing to sit down on flight

The video of Elin Ersson, the Swedish student who on Monday single-handedly grounded a flight from Gothenburg to Istanbul, in order to halt the deportation of a 52 year-old Afghan man has gone viral with good reason.

‘I’m not going to sit down until this person is off the plane,’ she says. Some passengers appear to support her whilst others disagree. One man notably tries to take her phone. ‘I don’t want a man’s life to be taken away just because you don’t want to miss your flight,’ she responds.

The UN published figures in April, which showed that in the first quarter of the year there were 2,258 civilian casualties in Afghanistan but it is still considered a safe country by the Swedish Migration Board. The far-right Sweden Democrats, who are running as the anti-immigration party, have been making strides in recent polls; and many will look to such deportations as an attempt by the government to appear to maintain a hard line on immigration in the lead up to September’s general elections.

Even if you disagree with deportations and the hostile immigration systems of multiple European countries, it can be easy to think that your voice doesn’t matter. Large numbers often draw the most attention such as the 250,000 people who showed up for the anti-Trump march in London a few weeks ago.

Mass protest of course has its role, as does the moral conscience of businesses such as Virgin Atlantic, who announced that from August 1st they will no longer work with the Home Office on forced deportations.

Without the voice of a crowd or the backing of a big corporation you can feel ineffectual, but activism can start on a small level. My first involvement with the “refugee crisis” started one weekend sorting through donations in a warehouse in Calais.

Not all of us are brave enough to lie in front of planes or even stand up on a busy flight; but protest has many forms. If you disagree with the treatment of asylum-seekers in your country, you can act, whether you choose to open your home to an asylum seeker or volunteer at one of the charities working with refugees.

The point that Ersson’s video makes is that one voice can soon become many. One Turkish man joins her, “we are with you,” he says. “Some people are applauding what I am doing,” she says towards the end as she wipes away tears. There is applause when the Afghan man is finally taken off the plane. In today’s world the action of a single “ordinary” person can become amplified through social media. Ersson’s video has now been widely shared and has had thousands of views already.

We are witnessing aggressive and intimidating immigration policies targeting the most vulnerable who have come to Europe seeking sanctuary. Earlier this month, the German interior minister declared that 68 Afghan asylum seekers had been deported on his 69th birthday. Days later, one of the 68 who had been returned to Kabul died by suicide. Many of those who are being deported have taken a long and dangerous road, often fleeing persecution and in fear for their lives.

Most asylum seekers don’t have the agency or ability to speak out against their deportation. The largely positive response to Ersson’s video has shown that there is strong opposition to policies of deportation. Incentivising governments to act humanely often happens on grassroots and individual levels. Make your voice heard, get involved with your local refugee charity and find out what your MP is doing about it. Ersson is exceptional in many ways, but she needn’t be an outlier: you don’t need to stand up on a plane to stand up for migrant rights.

Your voice and your actions matter more than ever.

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