All 156 people, including 61 children, who arrived at Gatwick airport on a charter flight from Damascus without any identification or entry documents, were last night seeking political asylum in Britain.
Immigration officials spent yesterday interviewing the families and about 37 single men in an airport lounge, trying to ascertain their origins, while the Egyptian private airline, fined Pounds 1,000 per passenger for flying them in, began to investigate how they came to board the plane.
The Home Office said last night that 128 of the passengers claimed to be Iraqi Kurds and 28 Iraqi nationals.
All 156 had been granted temporary admission while claims for asylum were considered. They had all gone to stay at agreed addresses, mainly with friends and relatives. Their claims were likely to take “some months” to be processed.
“It remains the government’s policy that undocumented and irregular arrivals of this nature fall to be discouraged,” a spokesman said.
The Home Office said: “Under the United Nations rules we have to be satisfied they have a well-founded fear of persecution should they return. We also have to be satisfied they are who they say they are, which is proving difficult.”
Meals and bedding were provided for the group in an airport lounge after they landed at 7.40pm on Tuesday. “There is a certain amount of chaos and bedlam, but our officials are working with interpreters to find out who they are,” a spokesman said. Helpers from the Red Cross and Travelcare provided toys and a television for the children.
Airport authorities were alerted half an hour before the ZAS Airline of Egypt McDonnell Douglas MD83 arrived that there were doubts over the nationality of the passengers. They were originally thought to be Europeans fleeing troubles in the Gulf. The aircraft was directed to a gate where airport staff could screen passengers before going through the usual controls and all were found to lack necessary documents.
George Short, UK director of ZAS, said the airline was considering an appeal against the notice of the Pounds 156,000 fine under the Air Carriers Liability Act 1987 for bringing in passengers without the necessary documents.
“We are very angry,” he said. “We became suspicious when we could not get a passenger list with the names and nationalities of those on the flight. We alerted the authorities of our suspicions before the plane arrived.”
The aircraft was chartered last Friday through the UK office of the Egyptian airline by a United States company, Air Routing, based in Texas. Mr. Short said that he was told the passengers were all Europeans who had ended up in Damascus after fleeing various parts of the Middle East.
“We asked for a full passenger list, as we have no representative in Damascus and we need it to give to immigration,” he said. “They kept promising one and assured us they were all Europeans who did not need visas.
“The flight was paid for within the contract time, but there was still no passenger list. We tried to raise the aircraft, but were unsuccessful and decided something must have gone awry. Documents were given to cabin staff but the passenger list was not among them.”
Airport authorities at Damascus have since told ZAS that those on the flight produced documents that would allow them to enter the UK.
“We have certainly not made any money out of it. We believed we were helping Europeans wishing to return home. They are all very wealthy looking, Gucci shoes and everything,” Mr. Short said.
The pilot, Captain Ali Mohamed Amin, aged 40, who has been with the airline for four years, said he was not suspicious because he thought the passengers could have held British nationality. It was not until the plane had landed that immigration officials told him that they were not.
“They found some of these people had destroyed their passports and tried to get rid of them in the toilets,” he said.
The eight crew and cabin staff of flight ZAS 115 helped airport authorities deal with the passengers after they arrived. A truck was parked behind the plane to prevent it leaving, but was moved yesterday and the airline was told that they could leave.
Mr. Short said: “We have no plans to leave. Ours is the final responsibility for the passengers and we are staying here in case we have to take any back.”
The aircraft, which left from Cairo, was due to refuel in the Egyptian capital en route from Damascus to Gatwick, but eventually made the journey non-stop at the request of the charterer’s representative in Damascus.
Passengers told Home Office officials that they paid between $1,500 (Pounds 800) and $2,000 for a seat. ZAS charged the charterers $65,000.
Hundreds of refugees are being dumped without warning on house-starved councils, the Association of London Authorities said yesterday. Margaret Hodge, chairman of the association, said the flood of refugees into Britain this week was placing enormous pressure on many inner-city boroughs, particularly Haringey and Hackney.
This week 250 Rumanians, 150 Iraqis and 70 Turkish Kurds arrived in Britain seeking refuge, in addition to 150 Eritrean children.