A version of this story was published in the September 2013 edition of Passenger Terminal World magazine.
THE recent case of the American whistleblower Edward Snowden gripped the world’s attention. Snowden went on the run after leaking secrets about America’s clandestine spying program to The Guardian newspaper.
After the US government revoked his passport and with no documents to enter Russia he found himself trapped in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport’s transit zone. For a few breath-taking weeks the media scoured the terminal building frantically searching for him, as we heard that Snowden was stuck in a kind of legal limbo, forced to remain in transit, unsure if and when he would get out.
The Snowden saga is extraordinary but perhaps the strangest thing of all is that it’s not unique. Nearly every year there are examples of passengers who get stuck in airport transit long-term.
Before Snowden, Sheremetyevo hosted Zahra Kamalfar, an Iranian women caught fleeing her homeland with false documents. In 2006 Kamalfar stayed with her two young children at the airport for nine months until her asylum claim was eventually regulated and she was allowed to continue on to Canada.
Last year, meanwhile, British national Gary Peter Austin spent a month at Manila airport without a flight home, and even as I write a Palestinian national has been living in Kazakhstan’s Almaty Airport for over three months, trying to get a flight out to Turkey.
The most extreme case of a passenger trapped in transit was Mehran Nasseri, an Iranian man who spent 18 years living at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Documentary-maker Paul Berczeller spent a year filming Nasseri at the airport, often sleeping alongside him in the terminal.
“It’s quite possible to live in a large modern airport; they’re like cities, everything you need is there,” says Berczeller.
Nasseri’s residency at the airport began in 1988 after a briefcase containing his travel documents was stolen before a flight to London and he was returned to France paperless. Even though he had legally arrived in the airport he had no right to be in France. Hence the ensuing legal limbo.
His home was a bench in Roissy’s Terminal One. He lived on handouts, and as his notoriety grew, occasional money made from media interviews. His story was eventually turned in to a film, “The Terminal”, made by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks.
Berczeller says: “He once said to me, ‘I’m always a passenger’. I think people were drawn to his story because of the Kafka elements of it – getting trapped in this crazy bureaucracy. But also because it was like a metaphor for the rootlessness of modern life.”
To understand how a situation like Nasseri’s can come about it’s important to realize the unique legal status of transit zones. They are such a common part of the airport infrastructure we take for granted what a strange entity they really are.
With the exception of the US, which since the September 11 attacks requires all passengers transiting on their soil to have an American visa, most countries don’t make you cross a border when you’re in transit. As a result transit zones are regarded by governments as international territory.
The status of transit zones evolved accidentally. Originally they were set up to be tax and duty free areas. At the time, international travelers needed transit visas even if they stayed inside the airport. Processing all these visas became a burden, and the tax-free transit zones evolved to areas where immigration laws didn’t apply.
Human rights groups call them “a legal fiction”, saying their extra-territorial status has been exploited by governments as a way to shirk their responsibilities towards international law, particularly in regard to refugees seeking asylum.
Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen heads research at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, which has looked extensively into the laws relating to international borders.
Gammeltoft-Hansen says: “In the late 1980s you had rising numbers of refugees arriving by plane – the so-called jet-age asylum seekers. More countries began adopting the transit zones because they saw that they were a useful buffer against this type of migration.”
Many governments argue that the transit zone’s extra-legal status means international laws like
the principle of non-refoulement, whereby states are forbidden from returning new arrivals to countries where they face persecution, don’t need apply. International courts disagree, and in a landmark 1996 ruling the European Court of Human Rights rejected a claim by the French government that the non-refoulement principle did not apply to its transit zone at Paris-Orly airport.
In spite of this ruling many airports have expanded their transit zones massively. According to Human Rights Watch, the transit zone at Charles De Gaulle now stretches 12 miles from the airport to include hospitals and a court.
According to Gammeltoft-Hansen, while passengers tend to experience the transit zone as a designated area, governments themselves interpret its geographical range quite loosely. In the case of Snowden, the transit zone might have stretched to include a hotel or safe house some distance from the airport and could explain why he was never located by the media during his month-long stay at the airport.
Gammeltoft-Hansen says in recent years this expansion has also included locating more security checkpoints in the transit zone. These are usually operated by the airline or a private security firm sub-contracted by the carrier. This is because carriers face hefty fines from the destination country if they allow passengers to travel there without valid documentation.
“As a result of the sanctions carriers have become an important, though unwilling partner, in immigration control,” says Gammeltoft-Hansen. “At Istanbul airport, for example, UK border officials work alongside airlines checking travel documents. They want to catch people before they’ve arrived on UK territory when it becomes a far bigger headache to send them back.”
The same is true of passengers traveling to the States via Ireland, with US border patrol agents now installed in Shannon airport’s transit zone.
The transit zone in most airports is divided in to two sections. Most of us only see the open area, which is where you’ll find the duty-free shops, restaurants and airport hotels. Less well-known is the closed-off section where passengers without valid travel documents, most often asylum seekers, are brought.
These closed-off areas sometimes feature hotels though the guests in them may face prison-like security conditions. An Associated Press journalist on the trail of Snowden deliberately flew in to Sheremetyevo with a 72-hour layover and no Russian visa. He was taken to the airport Novotel where he was detained in his room without internet for the duration of his stay. For those with no resources conditions are far worse. Nearly all major hub airports in the US and Europe operate some kind of detention facility run by the host state or by private contractors.
A UK Home Office spokesperson said passengers at Heathrow who lack the right paperwork are held “at an Immigration Removal Centre whilst we try and get them documented”.
Depending where you are these detention centers range in quality. Rights groups have decried conditions in some of the detention zones in Eastern Europe as “inhuman”, with people sharing tiny cells and denied access to legal representation.
Even in cases where passengers are free to move about the airport, the experience of living long-term in a terminus can be harrowing. While many major hubs now have extensive retail and dining options the overall environment is not set up for prolonged stays.
“When you think about it an airport’s a pretty harsh living terrain,” says Cody Lundin, an outdoor survival expert based in Arizona. “The constant flow of people would make it very difficult to feel grounded.”
Lundin says that while getting stuck in an airport terminal might not seem to have a lot in common with finding yourself stranded in the bush, the key to making it through both scenarios is the same.
“Survival is 90 per cent psychology,” he says. “Getting stuck in an airport terminal is a form of prison and just like in jail, the hardest thing is when you don’t know when you’re getting out. Having an end in sight is critical for psychological well-being.”
A good example of this is Nasseri. By the time Berczeller first met him he had already been at the airport a decade and his mental state had deteriorated dramatically. He had taken to calling himself ‘Sir Alfred’ and telling far-fetched stories about his background. His legal status had evolved to the point where, had he wanted to, he could have left the airport and moved to Belgium under the care of a social worker. But he refused.
When he contacted Nasseri’s family Berczeller was told that he had none of these mental health issues before his time in the terminal. Nasseri left Roissy in July 2006 after he was hospitalized for several weeks. He now lives in a Paris shelter.
“Airports are romantic; they offer all this potential in terms of travel,” Berczeller says. “But when you’re trapped in one this same thing turns the experience maddening. All day you hear these announcements for departures to exotic locations, except you can’t go to any of them. You’re stuck.”