Related Topics

  • Europe migrant crisis

Image source, EPAImage caption, The Air Arabia Maroc had begun its journey in Casablanca heading for Istanbul

It was a dramatic escape when more than 20 people fled a passenger plane forced to make a unscheduled landing in the Balearic Islands. But now this audacious adventure has raised questions not only about airport safety but migration routes into Europe too.

On the afternoon of 5 November, an Air Arabia Maroc Airbus A320 took off from Casablanca in Morocco destined for Turkey.

Not long into the six-hour flight, a Moroccan man on board appeared to suffer a medical emergency consistent with a diabetic attack. The aircraft requested permission to land in Son Sant Joan airport in Palma, on the Spanish island of Majorca, so that he could receive medical attention.

On landing, the man was taken by ambulance to Son Llàtzer hospital, escorted by civil guards, along with another man travelling with him.

Meanwhile, on the unguarded plane, a group of passengers tried to get off.

"There was a large altercation on the aircraft, with the crew being rebuked and intimidated by several passengers who asked to be allowed out to smoke and get out on to the airstrip," read the report drawn up by a local court which is investigating the incident. Excerpts have emerged in Spanish media.

Image source, EPAImage caption, For hours the airport was shut while the search for the escaped passengers took place

Eventually, more than 20 male passengers, reportedly all Moroccan except for one Palestinian, managed to push past the crew and airport staff who had been trying to block the aircraft door. In the chaos an air hostess was injured.

Footage filmed by one of the other passengers who remained on the plane showed several men pushing to get off while others, who had already exited the plane, sprinted across the tarmac.

The presence of civilians on the landing strip caused the airport to shut down for around three hours with around three dozen flights being disrupted.

The men who got on to the airstrip then scaled a perimeter fence and escaped.

Meanwhile, the man who had been taken to hospital was given the all-clear and arrested. His companion fled the hospital but was also detained. In the following hours, a total of 12 migrants were held, most of them near the airport.

Another 12 migrants remain at large and at least two of them travelled by ferry to Barcelona.

Image source, EPAImage caption, Suspects have been accused of offences ranging from facilitating illegal immigration to sedition

The incident has drawn calls for tighter security at Palma airport, one of Europe's busiest, and the Spanish government has promised to respond.

"The efforts being made are to ensure that this remains an absolutely isolated and exceptional act," said Aina Calvo, the central government's representative in the Balearic Islands. "All the airports in the world will have taken note."

The Moroccan consul in Palma, Abdellah Bidoud, described it as "a poorly thought-out adventure" and "a one-off".

And yet there is speculation that this method of entry into Europe, nicknamed patera aérea or air boat by some Spanish media, may have set a precedent.

In recent years, tens of thousands of African migrants have attempted to cross the Mediterranean to the Spanish mainland and Balearic Islands, or the Atlantic to the Canary Islands.

This video can not be played

To play this video you need to enable JavaScript in your browser.Media caption, Aicha, 17, was found this year after three weeks drifting in the Atlantic trying to reach the Canaries

It is a notoriously dangerous journey, which claimed over 1,700 lives last year alone. Migrants can pay large sums to enlist the help of traffickers.

By contrast, a Casablanca-Istanbul flight can cost as little as €200 (£170; $230).

"Faked illnesses, mad rushes and other creative ways of reaching Europe" are now an inevitable choice for migrants, notes commentator Camilo José Cela Conde.

Despite concerns about airport security, he sees such alternatives as being preferable to more traditional routes "if they avoid the extreme risk of death and do not profit the mafias that control the business of sea crossings".

As airports in Spain and elsewhere seek ways to ensure this episode is not repeated, right-wing newspaper ABC has suggested that this could be the beginning of a trend.

Image source, EPAImage caption, Palma airport in Majorca is among Europe's busiest

"Much more economic… much less risky and without debts to pay afterwards – and with a good chance of success," it said of the so-called air-boat migration method.

The far-right Vox party, meanwhile, has seen this as vindication of its anti-immigrant stance and proof that Spain's air, land and sea borders need tighter policing.

In the meantime, the probe into the case continues, with investigators keen to determine the degree to which the episode was pre-prepared.

The fact that almost all the men who fled the plane did not check any luggage into the hold has been seen as a sign that they were possibly all in on the ruse from the start.

Investigators have also been examining a Facebook account followed by thousands of young Moroccan men which reportedly published in July a proposal to carry out a plan that closely resembled that of 5 November.

The post said that if a passenger faked illness while flying over Spanish air space on the way to Turkey "the plane will carry out a forced landing in Spain to protect the reputation of the airline and to free itself of responsibility". It added: "Sign up if you're interested."

The 12 men in custody are being accused of an array of crimes, ranging from facilitating illegal immigration to public disorder and sedition.