By Caitlin Dewey, Washington Post, June 26, 2013
We don’t know where in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport “transit zone” Edward Snowden is hiding out or what exactly his plans are. But if he intends to stay in the airport for a while—a former official with Russia’s immigration service suggested that he could stick around “indefinitely”—he’ll join a short but prominent list of politicized activists and refugees who have found themselves stranded in legal limbo between the arrival gate and customs.
Airport transit zones are weird places. That space technically falls under no specific jurisdiction, a legal convention evolved to make travel and passport control more convenient. But it also doubles, conveniently, as an excuse for non-intervention in highly politicized or troublesome cases, when acting would provoke some kind of diplomatic snafu.
That is, indeed, the situation Russia finds itself in now—and it’s a place the country has been, albeit to a lesser degree, before. In 2007, the Iranian dissident Zahra Kamalfar spent 11 months living in the Sheremetyevo airport with her two young children before finding asylum in Canada. As Toronto’s CBC News reports, Kamalfar used false papers to fly out of Iran, where she had been jailed for attending a political rally. Once in Russia, the family was kept under house arrest at a Moscow hotel before authorities dropped them off at the airport—letting them avoid both the bad PR of deportation and diplomatic conflict with Iran.
In fact, parking political headaches at Sheremetyevo is old hat for the Russians. Over at Foreign Policy, Christian Caryl describes the small colonies of Somali and Afghan refugees who used to “[sleep] on pieces of cardboard in secluded corners on that second floor, or [wash] up in the bathrooms” of Sheremetyevo’s Terminal F. Russia didn’t have a procedure for processing the refugees, so it was easier to leave them in the transit zone until they appealed to the U.N.’s refugee organization for social services and asylum.
But Russia is by no means the only country to use the “transit zone” excuse to delay action on controversial visitors. All those jokes comparing Snowden’s case to the Tom Hanks film “The Terminal”? They have a distinctly unromantic basis in the life of Iranian Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who lived in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport for 18 years after Iran expelled him.
Nasseri’s ordeal was one part paperwork (he lost the papers that declared his refugee status) and several parts political (neither France, Belgium nor the U.K. wanted to take responsibility for him). Even after Nasseri was cleared to leave the airport and Dreamworks paid him several hundred thousand dollars to use his story for the Tom Hanks romcom, he continued sleeping in the airport.
The general takeaway of these stories, if there is one, might be that the magical-seeming lawlessness of the transit zone can cut both ways: For the political figures that find themselves there, it’s both a sanctuary and a prison. That already seems to be the case for Snowden, who has avoided expulsion or arrest by staying in Sheremetyevo—but also hasn’t left. Notably, both Kamalfar and Nasseri attempted to fly on to other airports and were returned to the city they started from.
In the meantime, Snowden faces the challenge of continuing his campaign from a Soviet-era airport. He has a high-profile predecessor: In 2009, Chinese human rights activist Feng Zhenghu maintained a blog and Twitter account from Narita International Airport in Japan, where he spent three months of self-imposed exile. He’s now under house arrest in Shanghai and still tweeting.
On Tuesday, he shared a message from a Chinese Twitter user named Wentao, who suggested that Tom Hanks, Feng Zhenghu and Snowden trade tips on airport living.