A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Has a guy been stuck in the Paris airport since 1988 for lack of the right papers?

August 20, 1999

Dear Cecil:

The following appeared in Chuck Shepherd's "News of the Weird" feature. Can this really be? Fill me in, please!

Cecil replies:

Suzette enclosed the following article:

In 1988 Iranian Merhan Nasseri, then 46, landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris after being denied entry into England because his passport and United Nations refugee certificate had been stolen. French authorities would not let him leave the airport, and there he has been ever since, in Terminal One, luggage at his side, reading, writing in his diary, studying economics, receiving food and newspapers from airport employees. . . . Charles de Gaulle spokesman Danielle Yzerman said of Nasseri, "An airport is kind of a place between heaven and earth. He has found a home here."

On first reading this I was as incredulous as the next guy. So I sent my henchman Mike Lenehan to the Paris airport to check things out firsthand. (No big deal, he was in the neighborhood.) His report boiled down to: (1) Yup, he's really there. (2) No, I can't explain it. At TSD we've got a handle on nearly everything, but some things stump even us.

Nasseri is in the kind of jam for which the term Kafkaesque was invented. In 1977 he was expelled from his native Iran for antigovernment activity. After bouncing around Europe seeking political asylum, he was finally granted refugee status by Belgium in 1981. Later he decided to head for England--he'd done some postgraduate work there, his mother was British, and apparently he figured he had some claim to British citizenship. Unfortunately, in 1988, when he tried to put this plan into action, his papers were stolen from him at a train station in France. He flew to London anyway but, lacking a passport, was sent back to France by British authorities. French police arrested him, but there was no place to deport him to. He's been at Charles de Gaulle Airport ever since. A French court ruled that he can't be expelled from the airport, and some think Nasseri, now in his mid-50s, will be there the rest of his life.

Questions crowd the mind when one considers Nasseri's situation. Couldn't he just call Belgium and get a copy of the necessary documents? He tried that. From the Boston Globe: "Belgian refugee officials refused to mail [his papers] to him in France. They argued that Nasseri had to present himself in person so that they could be sure he was the same man to whom they had granted political asylum years before. But, inexplicably, the Belgian government refused at that point to allow Nasseri to return there. And under Belgian law a refugee who voluntarily leaves a country that has accepted him cannot return."

This isn't strictly a matter of bureaucratic pigheadedness; in Europe there's widespread resentment of refugees and foreigners, due among other things to high unemployment. European governments have always been leery of admitting displaced persons, lest they be overwhelmed. Hey, look at Kosovo.

The French human rights lawyer Christian Bourget has been arguing Nasseri's case in the courts for years. Lots of journalists have written about him, and a movie about him was made in 1994. In 1995 the Belgians kinda caved and said Nasseri could come live in their country if he agreed to be supervised by a social worker. Most people would've said, Anything to get out of this frigging airport. Not Nasseri. It was the UK or nothing. He stayed.

The common view now is that Nasseri has lost his marbles due to long confinement and doesn't want to leave the airport. (For what it's worth, Lenehan found him rational.) He's got a life of sorts. He washes up in the lavatory after hours. Sympathetic airport staff help him out with his basic needs. He eats a lot of French fries.

Last month Belgian officials reinstated Nasseri's refugee status. Although nothing is certain, he may yet get to England. He seems unsettled by the prospect. My feeling is, cheezit, folks, get him out of there. Get him a nice little flat in London. And promise him he can bring that red plastic seat.

UPDATE

According to the Sept. 27, 1999 New York Times, Nasseri has now been granted permission to leave the Paris airport. But he doesn't want to go. He was still there as of Dec. 5, 2001, according to a brief report on that date in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (I was unable to personally confirm this because my assistant Lenehan left Paris and went home, the slacker.) "He is mentally ill," Dr. Philippe Bargain, the airport's medical director, is quoted as saying.

An earlier story in the Chicago Tribune said Nasseri "would not sign the documents Bargain handed him [which would enable him to leave] because they refer to him as Iranian." Although Iranian by birth, Nasseri blames Iran for his troubles and has been trying to obtain citizenship elsewhere.

"He says he must consider his future carefully. He may want to go to Belgium or England," the Times reported in 1999. "But his eyes really light up when he talks about the airport."

You want to say, come on, bub, time to go home. But then you think, that's where he is.

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