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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Refugees stranded in airport limbo

At 17, Abdulhakim Guliet left his family and home in Somalia to flee civil war and start a new life in the West. But Guliet never made it. On his way to Sweden from Ethiopia, his plane stopped in Moscow. Aeroflot officials removed Guliet from the plane on the grounds that his documents were forged and sent him back to Ethiopia. From there, he was bounced back to Moscow.


Since early August, Guliet has been in transit. Literally.


Guliet, along with 71 other gaunt-faced Somalians, are living on the floor of the transit lounge at Sheremetyevo II airport.


"They don't tell us anything. Some of us have been hanging on here for 10 months", he said.


A child was born in this transit lounge on Sunday, and another woman may give birth any day.


While Aeroflot is supposed to be feeding the Somalians, they say they eat an average of one or two meals a day -- mainly rice and bread -- depending on the whim of the airport's restaurant workers.


No country wants the Somalians, who are claiming refugee status.


"They call themselves refugees, but for us they are just passengers with forged documents who want to go to countries with social welfare programs, like Scandinavia", said Stan Petrunin, one of 10 officials at the airport's immigration department, created five months ago to deal with such problems.


"They didn't ask our country to accept them", added Vyacheslav Anurov, director of the department. "But we are paying for them while they await decisions on their destiny".


A United Nations refugee commission is trying to gain legal refugee status for the Somalians in other countries, Anurov said. However, he added that the situation is not likely to change for months, saying, "The United Nations works very slowly".


The Somalians were flying on Aeroflot planes via Moscow when they were pulled from continuing their flights for allegedly carrying false documents.


According to Guliet, these Somalians just did not have enough money to bribe their way out. Petrunin conceded that some passengers who travel illegally have sometimes successfully paid anywhere from $200 to $1, 000 to sneak past customs officials.


Aeroflot tries to send passengers like the Somalians back to their point of embarkment. But authorities in countries like Syria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Djibouti often refuse them, and they end up back in Moscow. If they are accepted back at their point of departure, Guliet says, many of the Somalians end up in jail. For the others, once back in Moscow, they often go through the same fearful process again.


For example. Said Abdulahi, 17, has lived in transit for the last 10 months. He flew from Kenya to Sweden with 26 other Somalians; Sweden accepted 20 and sent back him and six other teenagers, who then spent a week in a Nairobi jail, Abdulahi said. After that, he was sent back to Moscow.


Guliet, who speaks fluent English, is spokesman for the group, which calls itself the Somalian Refugee Committee in Moscow.


The Somalians sleep on cardboard mats in the airport transit lounge because the Russian government will not grant them visas, and they cannot afford to stay in Moscow's $60-a-night transit Sahara Hotel.


Guliet said that the Somalians have not had showers since they arrived in Moscow and that some have developed skin rashes and other illnesses.


Although Aeroflot officials say the Somalians have vouchers to eat in the airport restaurant three times a day, the Somalians say some restaurant workers refuse to feed them.


"Our eating depends on the kindness of the hostess", Guliet said. "Yesterday we just had one meal. We begged them for it".


When they do receive food, it is a Spartan amount of rice and bread Guliet says his group cannot eat the pork that is part of their provisions. Children, he said, are also suffering from malnutrition and a lack of such basics as milk.


When asked if a pregnant woman, expecting any day, thought her unborn baby was getting enough food, the woman, who was stretched out on a piece of cardboard, raised her head a little and shrugged: "I don't eat anything at all. I'm too sick".


She said she was taken to a doctor who gave her a prescription, but no medicine.


"When we asked the transit lady where to get the medicine, she said we must pay in dollars -- and we cant", said Adar Yousuf Geele, 40.


Guliet complained that the Somalians suffered harassment by racist airport workers who sometimes beat them. He and several other Somalians maintain that an airport worker kicked a woman who was nine-months pregnant, injuring the unborn child. But Aeroflot workers say the incident never happened.


The Somalians are in Russia at a time when many Russians themselves are below the poverty line. Even the airport officials are quick to show their resentment towards the Somalians.


They say the Africans are getting enough food and deny stories of ill-treatment.


"I don't believe them", Petrunin said. "They are very clever. They make money and steal. We need special control of them".


Anurov said the airline spent $5 million to $7 million a year on penalties: Airlines pay $3, 000 per passenger if immigration officials deny entry to passengers on the grounds that they have false documents, Anurov said.


But since the department was created five months ago, Anurov said, the airport has stopped 750 passengers with forged documents, mainly from Southeast Asia and Africa.


Sometimes, after much trauma, the Somalians successfully get to the West from Moscow. Last year, Sweden accepted 23 Somalians -- after they had lived in the transit lounge for six months, Anurov said.