Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Some Are Living for Months at Airport

Ten to 50 people are camping out in Sheremetyevo Airport's international hall at any given time, sleeping on the floor and begging for food.

Some came seeking asylum, others were stranded when their airline stopped flying.

But what they all have in common is they cannot or do not want to go home.

Airport staff, border guards and migration officials are helpless to do anything about it, and they spent three hours at a special meeting Wednesday racking their brains to find a solution to the problem.

All agreed that Russia's image was being damaged by the sight of sleeping bodies scattered about in the corners of Sheremetyevo-2's restricted international zone.

Many stressed that the stranded travelers deserve -- but are not getting -- the basic right to food and shelter.

Airport medics cautioned that the problem poses a threat to public health, saying arrivals from poorer countries might one day bring with them deadly infections such as smallpox or ebola. Cases of scabies and dysentery have been registered among airport campers in the past.

"All it would take is for this kind of information to be extensively reported in the Western press. Imagine what would happen to the ticket sales," said Farid Rafikov, deputy head of Sheremetyevo customs.

An Aeroflot representative cautiously nodded in agreement.

Sheremetyevo remains one of the worst-equipped airports in Europe to handle problems such as illegal migration and unexpected delays by law-abiding transit passengers. The root of the problem lies in a lack of funding and legislation to deal with the issue. As a result, the airport does not even have a place where stranded passengers can seek temporary accommodation.

At least 10 people have been stuck in the international hall for more than three months, including two Iraqis who arrived in February seeking political asylum, officials said. The other eight include four citizens of Guinea, two of Sierra Leone, another Iraqi and an Arab of unknown origin.

Under international agreements, it is the airline's responsibility to return illegal visitors to either their port of departure or the country of origin.

The Arab, however, arrived on a charter flight and did not have any documents on him, making it impossible to send him anywhere, said Sheremetyevo's deputy security chief, Ruslan Fadeyev. Complicating matters, he has refused to talk to officials, other than to tell them he's a Palestinian, Fadeyev said.

The four Guinea nationals are the last of a group of 40 who got stuck three months ago when the charter airline they were flying from Cuba to Guinea via Russia abruptly shut down. Russian authorities have been slowly flying members of the group home. It was unclear Wednesday who has been footing the bill.

The Iraqis appear to be in an even tougher position. Russia has refused to accept them, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is negotiating with other countries, Jean Paul Cavalieri, the legal head of Moscow's UNHCR office, told the meeting.

Cavalieri said the two seeking political asylum might be allowed into Canada or the United States but it will take at least seven months more to get their applications approved.

It was unclear what led the third Iraqi and the nationals from India and Sierra Leone to Moscow.

Meeting participants agreed that the obvious solution would be to set up a center to shelter those trapped at the airport. Fadeyev suggested that a couple of floors in the nearby Sheremetyevo Hotel be converted into a restricted facility where travelers could eat and sleep.

But to do even this, new legislation would have to be passed, Fadeyev noted. Several proposals will be sent to the government as a result of Wednesday's meeting, he said.

Meanwhile, a Federal Migration Service official said an appropriate way to deal with the situation would be to build a detention center "in a nearby forest."

"There they would be out of sight and could be dealt with according to the law," said Vyacheslav Kostomyotov, deputy head of the Federal Migration Service's department for immigration and asylum.

With Russia's patchy human rights record, the idea of sending refugees and transit passengers to a secluded lockup might sound worrying. But many officials at the meeting -- including border guards and Aeroflot representatives -- said tougher conditions might be the way to get somewhere with the most stubborn travelers.

One such passenger is a man who has been living at the airport at Aeroflot's expense since July 2001, said Vyacheslav Anurov, deputy head of Aeroflot's security service.

The man arrived from Mumbai, India, and tried to fly on to Western Europe with a fake Portuguese passport, Anurov said. Once caught, he said he was from the disputed state of Kashmir. Aeroflot has tried to send him to India and Pakistan, but both countries have refused to accept him.

"So since then he has been living at a hotel, having meals three times a day and costing us $120 a day. And the man simply doesn't want anything. He has never requested asylum, he hardly talks, and when he talks he lies," Anurov said.

"Maybe if he was living in slightly worse conditions he would choose to cooperate," he said.