Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The Times of London was first to reveal the scam in which an airline supervisor allegedly helped travellers claim asylum in Canada for payment.JUSTIN TALLIS/Getty Images

British officials are investigating an alleged immigration scam that allowed people to claim asylum in Canada by paying tens of thousands of dollars to an airline supervisor at London’s Heathrow airport, reportedly earning him millions before he fled to India shortly after his arrest.

The scheme, reported by the Times of London, allegedly worked by exploiting a loophole that let a British Airways employee check in passengers who did not have an entry visa for Canada, circumventing immigration laws. Britain’s Home Office, responsible for immigration and security, confirmed to The Globe and Mail that the details reported by the Times are accurate.

The former supervisor charged passengers nearly $43,000 each to fly without the necessary visa, earning him more than $5-million in the process, the Times reported. Officials in Canada became concerned after spotting a pattern of passengers on British Airways flights arriving in Toronto and Vancouver without a visa and claiming asylum, the newspaper said.

The Globe reached out to Canada Border Services Agency and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada for comment. Neither had provided a response by Wednesday evening.

British officials declined to discuss the alleged loophole, in which airline staff do immigration checks that used to be carried out by government officials, while the investigation continues. A Heathrow airport official deferred all questions to British Airways.

“It would be inappropriate to comment while an investigation is ongoing,” Emma Weal, a spokesperson for the Home Office, said in a statement.

The airline confirmed to The Globe that the supervisor accused of running the scam is no longer employed there, and said it was assisting authorities with their investigation. It’s believed the visa scheme was operating for several years.

The man at the centre of the alleged scam fled to India after his arrest in London on Jan. 6, the Times reported. He absconded with his partner, who worked for British Airways’ ground-services division. Both are on the run from Indian and British authorities, who intend to seek extradition, the Times reported.

The majority of travellers who benefited from the scheme were Indian citizens planning on claiming asylum in Canada, who flew to London on a temporary visitor visa, according to the newspaper. Others were British-based asylum claimants at risk of being denied the right to remain and being deported.

In order for the scheme to work, the former supervisor required that asylum seekers arrive at his check-in desk inside Heathrow’s Terminal 5, the Times reported. He would personally meet them again during the boarding process, falsely reporting that they had the correct documents required to fly to Canada.

Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board processed 5,024 claims from Indian refugee seekers last year. Another 10,638 claims from Indian refugee seekers were “pending” as of December, 2023. CBSA said in its statement that in recent weeks, asylum seekers have mainl come from Mexico, India, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria.

Historically, most Indian asylum seekers in Canada have been Sikhs, who say they’ve been persecuted or fear persecution by the Indian government because of their religion or support for Sikh independence in Punjab. Sikhs in Canada complain that India’s government is taking an increasingly Hindu nationalist position that’s making life difficult for religious minorities there.

Airlines and airline employees are given “a high degree of trust” when it comes to ensuring that immigration laws are properly followed, said Ravi Jain, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer.

As a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, Canada has an obligation to process asylum claims from individuals eligible for refugee protection – a process that is oftentimes lengthy and expensive.

“So the way the government tries to prevent that,” said Mr. Jain, “is by putting the onus on the airline.”

In instances where airlines fail to conduct the proper immigration checks on travellers, for instance when “inadmissible passengers” arrive with inadequate or fraudulent documents, governments will impose hefty financial penalties.

In most countries, that fine is between $1,000 and $2,500 per passenger, according to the International Air Transport Association.

Still, Mr. Jain called the British case “unusual.” He said that it should not be viewed as an indictment on Canada’s immigration system as a whole.

“This is not a systemic issue,” he said.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe