“Flight Attendants or Deportation Agents”: Indian-Americans recount alleged “harrowing” experience on Aeroflot

Four of the five Indian-Americans (Marc Fernandes,standing left, Shahana Islam, sitting left, Bakiul Islam, and Sabiha Islam) whose attorneys have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation urging it to conduct an investigation into their allegations of discrimination by Aeroflot. (Photo: courtesy Muslim Advocates)

“It was a harrowing experience,” Anshul Agrawal, an investment banker in New York, told News India Times; “I can’t put it into words. This is not happening,” is how Marc Fernandes, another Indian-American, a business development manager with Western Union, remembers he felt, the day in January when the Aeroflot agents allegedly forced him and his friends, to fly back to India from Moscow instead of proceeding to their homes in America. They “along with the dozens of other travelers who were perceived by Aeroflot of being of South Asian descent,” their attorneys say, were allegedly told to leave Russia within 24 hours, even as white passengers were given favorable treatment.

The organization, Muslim Advocates, and the law firm Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss PLLC filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation March 22, based on the account of five Indian-Americans affected by the alleged “grossly discriminatory treatment” by  Aeroflot Jan. 7.

Fernandes, Agrawal, Shahana Islam, Bakiul Islam, and Sabiha Islam are all U.S. citizens. And Fernandes, in an interview with News India Times, said there are several more U.S. citizens of Indian and South Asian descent who were also shunted back to India against their wishes, even as all the white passengers were not only given special treatment and lounge facilities, but also accommodated on later flights to America.

“It was definitely racial,” Fernandes said. “There was a Caucasian couple next to us, – we had Indian visas, they had Indian visas; we had American passports, they had American passports. The difference was that we were told our ‘only option’ was to go back to India, and they were told, ‘Call the lounge and they will let you in’,” Fernandes recalls.

“What should have been a routine return flight home turned into a harrowing ordeal after Aeroflot staff steadfastly refused to allow American customers who were or who were perceived to be of South Asian descent to return to the United States, “deporting” them instead to India — all while providing customers on the same flight who were or who were perceived to be White Americans with accommodations and connecting flights to America,” alleges the complaint, a copy of which was available on the Muslim Advocates website. “Aeroflot’s treatment of American citizens was not only unjust and unfair, it also violates Aeroflot’s internal protocols as well as federal aviation and nondiscrimination laws,” it adds. Even though one Aeroflot employee, identified only as ‘Kitora’ in the complaint, “Kitora” acknowledged to the passengers that Aeroflot had been diverting other passengers who had been stranded in Moscow through return flights via Europe, and expressed surprise that such an option had not been provided to them, she changed her behavior after meeting with her supervisors. According to the complaint, she “exhibited a markedly changed demeanor: suddenly, she refused to engage with any of the South Asian Travelers, instead repeatedly stating that there was nothing she could do for them.”

Apparently, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow also could not do anything for the Indian-Americans going by the account in the complaint. “Increasingly concerned about the situation, the Passengers frantically called the United States Embassy in Moscow,” the complaint says, adding, “The staff at the Embassy confirmed that it would be illegal for Aeroflot to deport United States citizens to third countries against their will. Although the officer on duty at the Embassy repeatedly asked to speak with Aeroflot to correct the situation, Aeroflot employees refused to speak with him, instead reiterating their threat that the Passengers would be deported and that if they did not return to India, Aeroflot would “make matters worse” for them — including through criminal deportation and heavy fines,” the complaint alleges.

After the Indian-Americans told the U.S. Embassy staffer that they had been threatened that criminal proceedings could be taken against them and they might have to pay heavy fines and pay for their own tickets, etc., “the official on the phone advised them that deportation — particularly in Russia — could have serious legal ramifications, and that the Passengers should do what they could to avoid that process,” the complaint says.

“We are urging them (DOT) to begin their investigation and they will decide if there should be a more fulsome investigation,” Juvaria Khan, staff attorney at Muslim Advocates, told News India Times. Asked if any other lawsuits were being filed, for instance against Aeroflot, Khan said, “All legal options remain on the table, but we are hopeful that DOT will conduct a full and fair investigation and that Aeroflot will take meaningful steps to ensure that this type of discriminatory treatment never happens again.”

As detailed in the complaint, although the passengers on the flight who were perceived to be of South Asian descent repeatedly informed Aeroflot staff that they could not be “deported” to India because they were United States citizens, Aeroflot staff refused to listen. One employee threatened Fernandes and his four friends, with civil and criminal sanctions, including forfeiture of their Aeroflot tickets if they refused to accept that they were “Indians” who had to return “back to India.”

“Aeroflot staff further informed the South Asian Travelers that they would not be provided with any accommodations while they remained stranded in Moscow’s airport,” the complaint alleges Fearing further persecution by Aeroflot and the Russian government, the Complainants reluctantly took a flight back to New Delhi, the complaint says. When they arrived there was not a single Aeroflot representative present to assist them, despite Aeroflot’s assurances to the contrary, it adds.

“This treatment is blatantly discriminatory -it happened to Americans, on a flight coming to the U.S.” Fernandes said. This was his second trip to India in 6 years, he said. Although a frequent flyer, Fernandes said, “This was my first time on Aeroflot and absolutely the last time.”  Agrawal echoed his sentiments.”I have been traveling for 18 years with a plethora of airlines. This is the first time with Aeroflot and hopefully the last time,” Agrawal said. It was a last-minute ticket purchased to go see his parents in India, and he believed it was with what he thought was “a premiere Russian airline.” He said he wants to make sure Aeroflot is held accountable and that the case sends a message to all airlines not to discriminate.

“This complaint is to ensure that a clear and unequivocal message is sent worldwide to any airline that chooses to contract with United States citizens and to offer flights to the United States: discrimination against any United States citizen on any basis – be it racial, religious, perceived ethnic origin or sexual orientation – is simply unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” Waleed Nassar, partner at Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss PLLC, is quoted saying in the press release.





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