Rahim Mohamed, 32, was already dreading being deported from his home of 15 years in Atlanta to Somalia, a country he hadn’t seen since he was a teenager. His dread transformed into a nightmare when he was chained to a seat on a plane for 46 hours with 91 other Somalis who say they were denied adequate food, water, medication, and even access to a restroom.
Allegations of mistreatment is the latest turn for the ill-fated flight, chartered last week by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to return Somalis to Somalia, one of several Muslim-majority countries named in the Trump administration's controversial travel ban. It's unclear how many were undocumented or targeted for another reason, but some onboard had lived here for decades and were slated for eventual deportation because of improper entry into the country, according to the New York Times.
The flight to Mogadishu left the U.S. last Thursday but was grounded in Dakar, Senegal, where the Somalis were confined on the hot plane on the tarmac for hours before returning to the U.S. under mysterious circumstances.
The would-be deportees, now being held in detention centers in Florida, are talking about what happened during the ordeal. Mohamed, who came to the U.S. in 2002 as a teenager and was given pending deportation orders in 2005 after missing a court date, said fights broke out on board as passengers tried to use the bathroom.
Mohamed said he was struck in the face and began bleeding as an ICE agent fought his seatmate. "He was choking somebody else next to my seat, and he tried to hit the other dude, and I moved out of the way and got hit,” Mohamed said. “To cover up the traces, they took his shirt."
Mohamed is also diabetic, and he said denial of medicine and movement caused his vision to blur and his legs to swell so severely he had trouble walking off the plane.
Rachel Petersen, a Minneapolis-based attorney representing another detainee onboard, says her client reported a similar experience. “He mentioned they did not have sufficient food or access to bathrooms and that violence was exacted against passengers who tried to use the bathroom,” Petersen said in an email to VICE News.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a civil rights group, said Tuesday it had “direct reports” of the same lack of access to humanitarian supplies and bathrooms, as well as “abusive” treatment of the detainees at the hands of ICE and Senegalese security personnel.
The group sent a letter to ICE Deputy Director Thomas D. Homan regarding the alleged mistreatment.
“Forcing these individuals to remain restrained for nearly a day on an airport tarmac, in smoldering temperatures, without consistent access to food, water, toilets, or air-conditioning is simply inhumane and unacceptable,” ADC Legal Director Abed Ayoub said in a statement. “ICE cannot act with such disregard for its detainees, and must be held accountable.”
ICE disputed the prisoners’ accounts, telling VICE News detainees had adequate access to food, water, AC, and restrooms, but that they could not disembark the plane. It did not comment on whether detainees were shackled to the chairs.
“No one was injured during the flight, and there were no incidents or altercations that would have caused any injuries on the flight,” ICE said in a statement. “Claims that detainees were physically threatened are categorically false.”
Petersen says trouble broke out even before the plane left the U.S. Her client broke his arm in ICE custody falling off a bed. He alerted ICE multiple times to the injury and eventually received a cast, but was put on the plane to Somalia before being able to attend his scheduled follow-up appointments.
When asked about the reported broken arm, ICE said safety is a top priority and the detainee’s account was “likely false.” It also mentioned that detainees were screened upon arriving back in the U.S., with no injuries being reported or noted.
But what happened on the plane isn’t the only disputed fact about this flight. There are conflicting accounts of why the plane turned around in the first place. ICE said in a statement to VICE News that a lack of “sufficient crew rest” caused the plane to do its U-turn in Senegal. A relief crew were due for rest in Dakar, but a disruption at their hotel made that impossible, so they were required to turn around and return to the U.S.
Mohamed and others onboard said ICE agents told the detainees they were turning around because of a mechanical issue, not a crew problem. Kim Hunter, a St. Paul, Minnesota–based immigration attorney whose firm represents two men who were on the flight, said her clients reported hearing the same story about the mechanical issue from ICE.
Additionally, Mohamed, having heard from his family in the U.S. and Somalia, believes an al-Shabaab threat to the returning Westerners caused the Somali government to refuse their re-entry. The Somali government did not respond to multiple requests for comment. One Somali news site, meanwhile, blamed the turnaround on recent protests in Mogadishu following Trump’s announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
When asked about these reasons, ICE reiterated the plane turned around due to logistical problems.
John Bruning, an attorney working with Hunter, says attorneys are on their way down to Florida to meet the men in the detention facilities. Mirella Ceja-Orozco, Mohamed’s attorney, says attorneys involved in the case are meeting to discuss federal litigation, and she’s reached out to Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison for help, as many of the men on the flight live in Minnesota.
Ellison’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Whatever actually happened on the flight, it’s clear that more Somalis are at risk than ever of deportation under the Trump administration. Hunter and Mohamed’s attorney reported their clients were detained during a regular check-in with ICE, a strategy that’s becoming increasingly common as Trump targets immigrants who were low priorities under the Obama administration.
According to federal data, deportations back to Somalia have spiked to 521 people this financial year, up from 198 from the previous period, even though the country just experienced one of the worst terror attacks in its history, with al-Shabaab killing over 300 in a truck bombing in the heart of Mogadishu.
Cover: Illegal immigrants from El Salvador are seated on an MD-80 aircraft for a repatriation flight to El Salvador, in June 2012 from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Ariz. Immigrants on a recent aborted flight for repatriation from the U.S. to Somalia are now telling of an ordeal where they were beaten and not given sufficient food.