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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stranded in 'The Zone' at Sheremetyevo

When Ayad Ahmed Hadi bought six Aeroflot tickets from Tunis to Kiev he thought he had made the investment of a lifetime -- a step that would bring him stability, employment and possibly wealth.


Instead, the move cost him five years' savings, and several days of living in the dark and noisy restaurant of Sheremetyevo airport, waiting with his wife and four children to be sent back on the next flight to Tunis.


The reason, Hadi said, was that the Aeroflot salespeople in Tunis had insisted that arriving in Kiev without a visa would not present the slightest problem, and that all their documents could be purchased at the airport.


Hadi, 42, is a schoolteacher from Iraq who has spent the last few years traveling in the hopes of finding employment. His last stop was Tunis.


"We arrived in Kiev, via Moscow, and when we didn't have the papers they sent us straight back here," said Hadi. "Aeroflot has completely and utterly cheated us."


The Hadis are among dozens of travelers who are refused entry to Russia every day and deported back to their country of origin. From all over Africa and Southeast Asia, potential migrants arrive in the hope of much greater comforts than the Sheremetyevo duty-free lounge can provide.


Most have already been deported from a third country and, because flights to their homelands are so infrequent, they are made to wait in the customs and duty-free area, known by airport officials simply as "The Zone."


"I'm exhausted and I'm frightened," said Hadi's wife, Susan Mazal Kataa, crying as she watched her two youngest, children, Karar, 10, and Rahik, 8, sleeping in a corner. Both of them, she said, had the flu, unable to adapt to the change in climate and diet since their arrival in Moscow three days earlier. None of them knew how long they would have to stay at Sheremetyevo or where their next destination would be.


"We have nothing in Tunis," said Kataa, 32. "In Kiev we have an uncle who has promised to support us. If they don't let us go, we won't even have any hope left."


Barsil Okpomechina, 32, a Nigerian businessman who has been shunted from Belgrade to Malaysia and back to Sheremetyevo with similar document difficulties, was equally angry, having arrived in Moscow almost a week ago.


"We must be released from this bondage," he said. "This is worse than a refugee camp." While airlines are theoretically responsible for ensuring that passengers have the documents they need, Aeroflot has been particularly lax about such requirements, said Sergei Manyshev, the airport's deputy director.


"I don't want to speculate on why or how this happens," he said. "All I know is that Aeroflot gets away with selling tickets to people, knowing that they won't be let into Russia, or that they won't be allowed to reach their final destination. They're interested in their own financial gain."


Aeroflot, meanwhile, has made no attempt to deny the accusations."It's impossible to blame the people who sell the tickets," said the deputy director of Aeroflot's aviation-safety department, Vyacheslav Anurov. "They make money for Aeroflot. "


"We can't even cover the cost of running all our flights," he added, admitting that he does not know whether the cost of feeding the deportees in Moscow then flying them back to their country of origin is greater or smaller than the amount of money made by selling them the tickets in the first place.


According to Anurov, Aeroflot gives each stranded person meal tickets amounting to $18.52 per day.


While airlines around the world are fined up to $5,000 if they violate visa regulations, Manyshev said the Russian border police has been exempting Aeroflot from these fines, which even when imposed rarely amount to more than $400.


The border guards, in turn, deny that they discriminate in Aeroflot's favor, but have not explained why they have only fined them three times this year.


"We have seen no reason to issue any other fines," said the service's director, Alexander Shaikin.


The only thing on which almost all the officials can agree is that the situation today is infinitely better than four years ago when the first refugees started fleeing the conflict in Somalia.


"There were about 120 people living here. Sheremetyevo was like a Somali village," Anurov said. "People were giving birth here, and there was nothing we could do. Eventually we put them up in a hotel, and within a month they'd all escaped."


This winter Aeroflot hopes to use the hotel once again, as a temporary home for the travelers, who this time will be heavily guarded.


Manyshev, however, is skeptical about these potential changes, insisting that as long as the company is selling the tickets, they are unlikely to bear the cost of accommodating passengers once they arrive in Russia.


Hotel costs for the stranded travelers are estimated to be approximately $60 per person per day, plus the cost of maintaining a constant guard.