There is a Syrian man, Hassan Al Kontar, stuck at the Kualalumpur Airport in Malaysia since March 7th. He was working in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) when the war broke out in Syria. Then, because his passport was not renewed by the Syrian government, he got into legal problems and his work visa was not renewed either. So he was given a choice between going back to Syria or going to Malaysia which is one of the few countries that Syrians can get on a plane without a visa. Reasonably, he chose Malaysia. He stayed there for some time, gathered money, and bought a ticket to Ecuador, another country that does not require Syrians prior visa. The reason of his wanting to go to Ecuador was: Malaysia is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention; therefore, he cannot legalize his situation and would be left in limbo if he stayed there. Like any human being, Hassan wishes to lead a stable life without the hassle of bureaucracy and fear of expulsion. Again like any human being, he doesn't wish to be stuck in a camp but to be able to work and make a life for himself.
Anyway... He got his ticket to Ecuador, but Turkish Airlines denied him boarding. It's ironical that it is again Turkish Airlines, the ones who denied me boarding as well. However, there is a difference in our situations. In my case, they were totally right in denying me boarding. Djibouti had changed its visa regime of 25+ years without advance notice and I did not have a visa. On the other hand, in Hassan's case, I believe they were in the wrong and didn't have that right to deny him boarding the plane to a country which does NOT require a prior visa. I write “I believe” this to be the case, because I haven't been able to find any specific information on the “why” of their refusal on the news. Unfortunately news reporting is like most of the things in our lives today, deteriorating and at the hands of the mediocre if not the totally incompetent. There are some reports stating that they contacted Turkish Airlines, and Turkish Airlines has refused to answer. But there is no report on what Hassan said when they asked him.
People stuck in such situations have to come up with alternatives. So that's what Hassan did. Having lost his flight and chance at Ecuador, he tried another country, Cambodia. This time he boarded the plane; however, he could not enter the country. The immigration officers interrogated him and returned him back to Malaysia – or rather shipped him back, as if he was an undeliverable package.
For those who may not know, immigration officers always reserve the right to deny you entry into their country even if you have a valid visa. You are at their discretion, at their hands, at their mercy.
As Hassan's Malaysian visa had expired by that time, he was now banned from entering Malaysia for five years. Stuck at the airport terminal, Hassan reached out to charities and human rights organizations. They all came back saying they couldn't do anything. Hassan asks “If these organizations can't help, who can?”
He then started tweeting about his condition. He got international media attention. Malaysian authorities were aware of the situation. So they offered to remove him from the blacklist, give him a month pass into the country. Or according to another report, they even offered him a chance to stay as long as he needed, but he couldn't work. As he couldn't get refugee status from a country that is not a signatory he couldn't get a residence visa nor a permanent visa either.
Hassan was thankful for the offer, but he refused. At this point some may say he is being picky, wanting to choose a country etc. that he is not a real refugee. I will not get into a discussion about his status as a refugee. Only involved authorities are entitled to have a say on that, but more importantly, I couldn't care less. I do not look at things from a legal perspective -because laws can be wrong, they may be outdated, they may be in need of a complete remake/redoing. Which I believe to be the case here. I look at the human side. I look from the human side. I am a human. And I know what I'd want for myself in such a situation. To be able to go wherever I wished to to make myself a life. And I take it that everybody should have that right.
“I am a highly-qualified professional — desperate for a place where I can be safe, legal, not looking over my shoulder or being on the run … a place where I can work and prove myself," says Hassan. “This would be a short-term solution to the life-long problem I face...”
So in comes some Canadians from Whistler. Hassan calls the British Columbian Laurie Cooper his “Canadian mother.” They've opened up a GoFundMe campaign. They've even raised more than the requested amount, more than 18.000 Dollars to sponsor him. However, things are not so easy. There is a line to process requests. Who knows how long it will take, how many months or even years?
When I first read about his predicament, the first worry that came to my mind was how he was feeding himself. As we all know, coffee or any food at airports is outrageously expensive. I found out that airlines provide him three meals a day. Of course, it's airline food! The quality of which is also manifest to us flyers. You, naturally, do not think he is offered business-class food, right?
Washing -himself and his laundry- is another complication he faces. He washes (!) in the disabled toilets as it is larger and used by less people. He does it at night so that there are even less people. He has nowhere to hang his clothes.
He has made himself a corner, sleeping in a place where there are constant loud announcements, where it is cold, curled up in uncomfortable chairs or on the floor...
"It's exhausting. I'm tired from this. I cannot take it anymore," Hassan said. "I'm trying to act strong, but I'm even tired of acting strong. I just want to relax."
Don't we all want that Hassan? Don't we all want to take a break and a breath? I'd like that too... to get a break from all this bad news, to forget about it all, to just enjoy my life. I am luckier than you. I can do that almost whenever I wish. I watch a movie, ah but you watch movies too ;) there are people who go through life with one ordeal after another, without any respite. What can I do to help? What should they do?
In his book “The Wretched of the Earth” Frantz Fanon writes about a girl whose father tortured Algerians to get information. She decided to not go see her father anymore because every time she went she'd hear the screams rising up to her room and she'd spend the whole night awake.
You have no idea how terrible it is to hear screaming all night like that. Sometimes I used to wonder how it was that a human being was able to bear hearing those screams of pain – quite apart from the actual torture.”
That's how I feel. Helpless... Reading and hearing about all this refugee/migrant stories, stateless people stories. I have the Scream in my head.
Crux of the Matter
Hassan's answer to Malaysian authorities who allowed him one-month entry was: “It’s a temporary fix, with no long-term prospects.”
Now... This is the crux of the matter which will take you to the assertion I'm going to be making. I'm not saying we shouldn't work on the individual cases, we sure should go ahead and help them find a solution to their predicament. But I've never liked the starfish story. You know the one where a man throws the starfish washed up on the shore and says “It made a difference for that one.” Of course I try to save whatever starfish I can too. But that's not enough for me. Okay, it makes a difference for the one you save, but what about the thousands that are hitting the shore as you toss that one away? If hundreds of them wash up the shore while you are throwing one back into the water, I'm not sure trying to save them, to make a difference for one is the smart thing to do. At least, it's not the answer.
We need to find a permanent solution to all these people stuck at airports for idiotic bureaucracy that inhibits people from existing in the world they are born; we need to find a permanent solution to statelessness. We need to end this stupid game of citizenship and visas based on borders, imaginary lines drawn by blood.
We are many here on land and safe. As some are trying to throw the starfish back into the sea (which is an unlucky metaphor- as people are trying to save migrants from the sea these days), others should be going after a more permanent and long-term solution.
The logical thing to do is to stop the tide that is causing the starfishes to wash ashore and die. It's fine that people help those starfishes, but we should strike at the root. And that entails recognizing everybody's right to free movement on the world they were born.