I remember the first time I saw Elin Ersson’s face very clearly. I was sat on bed, scrolling through my phone, lolling about in the summer heat. A video kept popping up on my feed, and so eventually I clicked on it and watched. I ended up sitting through the entire 18 minutes, in silence, with tears streaming down my face.
On Monday, July 23 2018, Elin boarded a plane due to fly from Gothenburg, Sweden to Istanbul, Turkey. Aboard that flight was an Afghani man. Guards were sitting either side of him, ready to forcibly deport him to Afghanistan, a place he had fled years previously for his own safety. As the plane prepared for takeoff, Elin stood up, live streaming from her phone as she did, refusing to sit down until the man was taken off the plane.
Just over a year before Elin took action, I was one of 15 people who locked themselves around a charter flight at Stansted Airport to stop it deporting vulnerable people to Nigeria and Ghana. After a 10 week trial at the end of last year, we were convicted for terror-related offences in December. Our sentencing is due to take place on February 6.
Since her action, Elin has been charged for “crimes against aviation law”, with her trial due to take place on the February 4.
In both cases, the charges are unprecedented and untested. Both have seen media scrums, with the subjects sitting in the centre, trying to wait out the storm. Watching someone else go through a similar set of experiences from afar has been surreal.
With Elin in town for the premiere of Grounded, a short fictionalised account of her action, I sat down to chat with her about our different experiences of trying to intervene in brutal immigration systems, the reactions to our actions, and what the future holds.
I remember watching the video you took from the plane for the first time and I sobbed for most of it: at the start because it was so tense and stressful, but then even more towards the end, as people began to stand up with you. What did it feel like for you?
I was sick in my stomach: I wanted to throw up and go home and cry. I was just so afraid.
As I was going through security, the family of the guy we were trying to save were talking to all of the passengers due to be on the plane, telling them about the situation in Afghanistan and why people shouldn’t have been sent there – so most of the people on that plane knew what was happening. But it was still a bad situation because people react in bad ways when they are pressured. I wanted to give up, but I had to do it because no one else could.
So you planned to get on the flight to save your friend, but then you found out that he wasn’t on that plane, and it was a different person being deported to Afghanistan. You decided to carry on regardless. Do you know what happened to the guy you were originally planning to save?
He was driven across Sweden and deported from Stockholm instead of Gothenburg – they drove him coast to coast just to deport him. It would have taken seven or eight hours.
And what about the person on the flight?
I think he was deported the same week. I haven’t had confirmation, but I just heard rumours from social media.
You have referred to these flights as “secret deportations” in the past. What do you mean by that?
Usually, people in deportation centres should know that they are going to be deported on a certain day, and they should be able to contact their lawyers. But sometimes they just pick them up in the morning or in the middle of the night without contacting any lawyers or family members.
Here in the UK, we have charter flights, which are secretive in the sense that they are mass deportations filled up with people who often haven’t had a chance to have their case fully heard. They happen in the middle of the night, far away from the public – sometimes from military bases. Before that, though, people are kept indefinitely in detention centres across the country. Do you have something similar in Sweden?
We have five closed deportation centres. People who are “undocumented” or have been declined asylum are sent there if they are caught by the police. They should be able to have a phone, but not with a camera, and they should be able to go on the computer and log into the internet, though they’re not always allowed to do that because of the people working there. They can spend up to a year there before they are deported or set free.
It’s basically worse than Swedish jail because in Swedish jail you have so many more privileges than in the deportation centres. I know guys who have been locked up for over nine months and have not been allowed outside once.
13 million people watched the video, and in the aftermath, it looked like you were in the middle of a huge global media storm. How did that feel?
It didn’t feel too good all of the time. People were coming up to me on the street and recognising me, and I never knew if they were going to yell and be violent or be happy.
Was anyone ever violent?
No, but each time someone would could up to me, there would be the risk there and all of the stress around that. The media as well would call me around the clock, I had to turn off my phone for almost two weeks just to live my life. Those were the bad parts. But then, it was just so nice to hear from refugees who were messaging me on different platforms telling me and my friends that they had finally found some hope, and that they finally felt like they were actually worth something to other people.
The Stansted 15 had something similar – although it was stretched out over many months from when the action happened to when we actually got our verdict 21 months later. When that verdict came in, we had that whirlwind and we were all on TV and radio and giving interviews, but the thing that always frustrates us is that often the narrative is made to be about us. It gets taken away from the people at risk, who should be at the heart of the issue. It felt like we were being promoted as heroes and saviours. I wondered if that was similar for you?
Yeah, totally. The international media treats me like this superhuman hero who has done something that no other person could, while I just see it just as a duty that everyone has. As a Swedish citizen, I should do this in Sweden. You guys as British citizens should do it in Britain – we should use our privilege to protect other people. While the international media saw me as a hero, the Swedish media saw me as a villain that only made the deportation cost more. So the international media has looked at this in a better way. But still, all the focus is on me and what I did not on the actual problem.
Why is it that the Swedish media painted you as such a villain?
I think it’s because the international media doesn’t have to consider the consequences. They don’t have to think about the taxpayers, while my action was one month before an election and the racist party [Swedish Democrats (SD)] used this a way of getting votes. Immigration has been the top political subject in Sweden for the last two or three years, and each time something happens it becomes a big story.
One thing the Stansted 15 has thought a lot about is the negative impact our action had. The Home Office stopped providing as much specific information to people due to be deported, meaning it was harder for lawyers intervening, and some deportations were transferred from airports to military bases. It’s weighed heavily on us since, and I wondered if you felt the same way about the way in which SD weaponised your action?
Not really. The thing is, I’m not responsible for people being neo-Nazis and racists. I can’t stand for decisions that other people make. I did something to protect a human life, and that is what I do each time I take action. If neo-Nazis and racists decide to be even harder on people and break more human rights, that can’t be my fault. I’m doing what I can to protect humans instead of staying silent and letting them die.
With the rise of SD, what is the political climate like more generally in Sweden at the moment?
Oh, it’s very Nazi loving. We have a big neo-Nazi Party [Nordic Resistance Movement] as well as SD. They go on the streets every month. They have cooperation across Norway, Sweden and Finland and they help each other out by going to each other’s marches. They beat people up, they send death threats to me, to famous people, LGBTQ people…
Have you seen an escalation of that hardening of immigration practice?
Definitely, people who would have had permanent leave to remain a few years ago will be deported now.
If the people that work in the migration office accept more people for asylum or residency, then they either get fired or moved – but if they decline more people, they get a raise. If there’s one area that accepts more people, then it’s looked down upon. It’s just been getting worse and worse each month.
Do you think the fact that you’ve now been charged with an offence and they’re seeking to prosecute you in the courts, is part of that kick back?
I think the fact I was protecting someone from the Middle East is partly why it was such a big deal in Sweden. I don’t think the charge would have been brought if I was doing a similar thing without that.
So what’s next with the prosecution?
I have my trial date set for 4th February, which should last for three or four hours. Then two weeks after that, I’ll find out the result. It’s hard to know what to think because this law has never been tried before in court.
That sounds very familiar.
It’s a law that’s really hard to read, and no one knows how to interpret it, and this decision affects whether people in the future will be able to do what I did.
Do you feel a lot of pressure?
Definitely, but I can’t change anything right now. I have a really good lawyer who has contact with other high up lawyers, so I’m feeling confident. This law can give you from a ticket to six months in jail – for what I was doing, the maximum I can get is a £300 fine.
Well, at least you’re not looking down the barrel of jail.
Yeah, I’m lucky I don’t have the same potential outcome as you!
One thing that has happened around such an unprecedented charge being used against the Stansted 15 is that it’s really galvanised people into action. We’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people who’ve been out on the streets getting angry for us. Have you had the same experience?
People have been incredibly supportive and have been asking what they can do for me. More people have been generally more engaged with the issues, and seen that there is stuff you can do. When these actions happen, more people get to know the issue, and they see that they can actually do something about it.
Okay, last question: knowing everything you know now, knowing how it all works out, how stressful it would be, would you go back and do it again?
Of course. Always. And you?
Without a doubt.
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