It can be hard to be a human rights activist, especially living in our present anti-migrant climate. Around the world, strongmen are on the rise: authoritarians like Donald Trump, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Italy’s Matteo Salvini are leading the global conversation on immigration down a dark and hateful path. Against such overwhelming force on the other side, it can often feel like one individual can’t make much difference. That’s why I’m so inspired by Elin Ersson, the Swedish student activist who disrupted a flight from Gothenburg to Istanbul to prevent the deportation of an Afghan asylum seeker.
You’ve probably heard the story by now. In brief, when Elin and her fellow activists found out that an asylum seeker was going to be deported on this flight back to Afghanistan, where his life would be in serious danger, they put money together to buy her a ticket. Once on the plane, Elin stood up and refused to sit down until the pilot agreed to remove the refugee passenger. Livestreaming the whole ordeal, she faced backlash from passengers who were being inconvenienced by her actions. But she replied: “I am doing what I can to save a person’s life.”
I’ve seen people online asking whether what she did was right or not. Holding up a plane full of people, her challenge to the Swedish government’s anti-immigrant policy did not endear her to many of her fellow passengers. But I believe what she did was right. There will always be questions surrounding the “proper” way to protest, but few acts of civil disobedience don’t inconvenience someone. Yes, there were angry passengers on board, including what sounded like an understandably annoyed Englishman. But there was also clear support from many on the flight, and applause when the man in question was ultimately removed.
The other obvious question will of course be: will this work? There will always be another plane, there will always be another way of forcing this person out of Sweden. But what Elin and her fellow activists have done is to force Sweden to look at its own practices and treatment of refugees. Look at how this story has been picked up around the world, how it has raised awareness of deportation flights and what can be done to stop them. Think of how many activists around Europe and around the world can now look at this woman’s actions and think “I can do something too.”
Much like the anti-fracking activists in Lancashire who have broken an injunction to protest against Cuadrilla’s site in their area or the Stansted 15 activists, who stopped an immigration removal flight earlier this year and were charged with “terrorism-related offences”, the repercussions for Elin may be large. But she has shown that you don’t need a title to push back. She has shown that anyone can take action to challenge an unjust system or stand up for another person’s rights.
At a time when it’s easy to feel powerless against the tide of authoritarianism, racism and rising fascism, she and her fellow student activists have sent a message of hope. These stories and actions can shine a light on the global fight for a better world.