Two people have been detained after a plane carrying 303 Indian citizens was grounded in France over human trafficking allegations.

Those on board the charter flight run by Romanian company Legend Airlines – including a 21-month-old toddler – were travelling from Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates to Managua, Nicaragua.

But the A340 plane was grounded at Vatry Airport, a small hub in Champagne, northeastern France, on Thursday, following a tip-off that the passengers may be the victims of people smugglers.

The two passengers were detained as part of an investigation by French police into suspected human trafficking by an organised crime group.

Legend Airlines lawyer Liliana Bakayoko said the company hoped the plane could head to Mumbai, India, on Monday, ”with as many passengers as possible”.

It is not clear whether the passengers, who have been kept at the airport, will be allowed to continue to Nicaragua.

In France, foreigners can be held for up to four days in a transit zone for police investigations, after which a special judge must rule on whether to extend that for eight days.

The plane has been grounded since Thursday. Pic: AP

Passengers sleep on camp beds

While the airport was transformed into a hub for the human trafficking investigation, all other flights were cancelled or rerouted.

All 15 crew members were questioned and released, according to a lawyer for the airline, who said they are deeply shaken by what happened.

Passengers were held in the airport, where they spent three nights on camp beds, according to an official with the local administration.

Some onboard were unaccompanied children, according to the local civil protection agency.

Emergency workers, Red Cross workers, a doctor and local volunteers arrived at the scene to look after the needs of the passengers, including providing regular meals, medical care and access to toilets and showers, the administration said in a statement on Saturday.

Canvas prevent to see inside the Vatry airport, Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023 in Vatry, eastern France. About 300 Indian citizens heading to Central America were sequestered in a French airport for a third day Saturday because of an investigation into suspected human trafficking, authorities said. The 15 crew members of the Legend Airlines charter flight en route from United Arab Emirates to Nicaragua were questioned and released, according to a lawyer for the small Romania-based airline. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Canvas put up to protect passengers’ privacy. Pic: AP

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The Indian Embassy in France posted on X that embassy staff had obtained consular access to the passengers.

“I’m surprised at how things unfolded in the waiting area. People should have been informed of their rights, and clearly that was not the case,” Francois Procureur, the head of the Chalons-en-Champagne Bar Association, told BFM television.

He called the mass, hasty airport hearings “unprecedented”.

Airline denies role in possible human trafficking

Ms Bakayoko said Legend Airlines denies any role in possible human trafficking, and welcomed the release of the plane and its crew after questioning as “good news for the airline”.

A “partner” company that chartered the plane was responsible for verifying the identity documents of each passenger, and communicated the passengers’ passport information to the airline 48 hours before the flight, the lawyer said.

The customer, which she would not identify but said was not a European company, had chartered multiple flights on Legend Airlines from Dubai to Nicaragua, some of which had already made the journey without incident, she said.

The crew members, who are of multiple nationalities, “are rather traumatised”, she said, adding: “They wrote me messages that they want to see their families for Christmas.”

While it is not certain the Indians’ destination was the US, Nicaragua has frequently been used as a springboard for migrants because of relaxed or visa-free entry requirements for some nationalities.

Charter flights are sometimes used to make the journey before migrants travel north by bus with the help of smugglers.

The US is dealing with record numbers of people trying to reach the US border from Mexico with the issue of border security becoming a key Republican line of attack ahead of the 2024 election.