As It Happens

Pilot reportedly refused to fly deported U.K. asylum-seeker to 'certain death' in Afghanistan

Refugee advocates say Samim Bigzad was due to be deported from London to Afghanistan, but was temporarily spared when a Turkish Airlines pilot refused to take him.
A Turkish Airlines pilot refused take an Afghan asylum-seeker back to his home country, advocates say. (Jacky Naegelen/Reuters)

Story transcript

After exhausting every legal avenue to stop the U.K. from deporting Samim Bigzad to Afghanistan, advocates went to London's Heathrow Airport on Saturday in a last-ditch effort to save him. 

They found the other passengers about to board the same commercial flight to Kabul via Instanbul, and pleaded with them not to let it take off with him on board.

"We were just talking very quietly and respectfully and just letting them know there was somebody on the plane who was not a willing passenger, that it was a forced deportation, and we were letting them know that he faced the threat, the very credible threat, of beheading back in Afghanistan," ​Bridget Chapman, chair of the Kent Anti-Racism Network, told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner.

"We just felt that we had to give it our best shot. There really wasn't any other option, so we went and we tried. We thought we'd fail, to be honest."

Some passengers "didn't want to get involved," she said. But others appeared sympathetic to the plight of Bigzad, a 22-year-old failed asylum-seeker who says the Taliban threatened to kill him over his family's business ties to the Aghan army.

Bigzad came to the U.K. in 2015 where he takes care of his ailing father, a British citizen who has PTSD from being imprisoned and tortured by the Taliban in the 1990s, according to the Independent.

More than 3,000 people have signed an online petition asking the U.K. government to delay his deportation and review his asylum claim.

"The Taliban, they don't mess around," Chapman, who works with refugees in the U.K., said.

"If they make a threat, they really mean it, and I know young people who have seen relatives executed in front of them."

Despite their efforts, Chapman said the flight took off, and an airline worker informed them that everybody was on board.

"We thought we'd failed. It was horrible," she said. "We were just so frustrated, you know, that something so awful was happening right under our noses and we felt powerless to stop it."

Feeling defeated, Chapman went home and crawled into bed.

Then her phone buzzed with a message from Bigzad's housemate Kavel Rafferty.

It read: "He's here."

"And I said, 'What do you mean, he's here?' And she said, 'He's just called me. The pilot refused to take him,'" Chapman said.

"We sort of did this weird laugh-crying because I was just so happy, but relieved. It was amazing."

Rafferty corroborated the story in an interview with the Independent.

"The last message I'd had from him was so sad — it just said, 'They've come to take me' and then the phone was switched off," she told the newspaper.

"But then he rang that night and told me, 'The pilot said no.' He was happy and relieved and shocked — it was a lot to go through in one day."

European Aviation Safety Agency regulations state that the pilot is responsible for the "safety of the aircraft and of all crew members, passengers and cargo on board" and has final authority over who boards a plane and whether it takes off.

Samim Bigzad and his housemate's cat Ted. (you.38degrees.org.uk)

Chapman has no idea what prompted the pilot to make the decision. 

Turkish Airlines has not identified the pilot and did not respond to As It Happens' request for information. 

"We just don't know what made the difference, but I would like to kiss him or her," Chapman said.

But Bigzad isn't out of the woods yet. He is being held at the Brook House immigration removal centre near Gatwick Airport. 

A U.K. Home Office spokesman told the BBC that staff made "fair and considered decisions" relating to asylum and human rights claims.

"We're really worried about him and we're really worried that they will attempt to deport him again soon," Chapman said.

"It's far from over, but we'll fight them every step of the way. Whatever we can do, we will do it. I will not stand by, we will not stand by, and let somebody be sent back to almost certain death."

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