Reuters is today reporting that U.S. fugitive Edward Snowden’s hopes of leaving Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport have taken a turn for the worse, as a “last minute political intervention” blocked his request for asylum in Russia. Snowden is currently the most famous of all people who have lived in airports, but it’s a more extensive list than you might think.
Snowden, an American-born former technical contractor for the United States National Security Agency is wanted by the United States for espionage, and has been on the run since leaking details of government mass surveillance programs in the U.S and U.K.
Snowden, of course, has other things on his mind, but he is now threatening to become the most famous example of people who have lived for an extended time in an international airport, free from the borders that govern the rest of the world just outside their walls and security checkpoints.
The American fugitive may feel like he has been trapped in the airport forever, but it’s nothing compared to the ordeal that Iranian refugee Mehran Karimi Nasseri went through. Nasseri, as the overwhelming majority of us learned through the Tom Hanks movie “The Terminal”, a fictionalized account of his ordeal, spent 1988 through 2006 in Terminal One of the Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Paris, France: 17 years.
Nasseri’s case came about essentially because of a nightmare of paperwork. He claimed to have been expelled from Iran in 1977. He made his way the U.K., where he was refused because he had no passport and sent back to France, where he had boarded a plane. The French, however, refused to admit him, but a French court ruled he could not be removed from the airport. Nasseri’s story, like many of those who spent shorter times than he living in international airports, didn’t end well.
People who have lived in airports don’t generally stay very long, with some notable exceptions…
So where is Mehran Karimi Nasseri now? As of 2016, he is reported to be living in a shelter in Paris.
While most who take up residence in airports are there because they simply lost a passport or ran out of money on their way home, the majority of those who spend longer times are asylum seekers. Almost all describe the same sort of limbo; waking to flight announcements and surviving on the generosity of airport staff and passengers, who donate food, clothing, and sometimes medical attention.
From May 2004 until July 2005, former Kenyan national Sanjal Shah gave up his Kenyan passport, then flew to the U.K. on a British Overseas citizen passport, a document that allows temporary entry but not residence. After being sent back to Kenya he took up residence in the international section of the Nairobi airport, fearing arrest in his home country. On July 12th, he was granted full British citizenship. British High Commission officials said his protest played no part in the decision to grant him a full British passport.
Closer to home, Iranian refugee Zahra Kamalfar spent 318 days in the Sheremetyevo International Airport, Russia with her children after her husband was executed while in Iranian custody. She was ultimately granted asylum in Canada. She now lives in Vancouver, where she famously fainted upon arrival to the city’s airport.
Aside from Snowden, the only other person in the world right now known to be living in an airport is Iraq national Mohammed Al Bahish, who has been living in Kazakhstan’s Almaty International Airport since March. Al Bahish, who lost his refugee travel documents, has been shuffled back and forth between Turkey and Kazakhstan four times.