Hassan Al-Kontar has been arrested in Malaysia on October 2nd bringing to an end his seven month stay in Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s budget terminal. The 36-year-old Syrian national has been stranded in the airport since March 7th when he was stopped from boarding a flight to Ecuador, Reuters reports. The strange situation is a reflection of indirect consequences of violent conflict: Kontar is wanted by Syrian officials for failing to return to the country and fight in the military. He claims to have been working in the UAE as an insurance salesman when the Syrian civil war broke out and he was deported to Malaysia in 2016 after the Syrian embassy refused to renew his passport. Malaysia is one of the dwindling numbers of countries which allows visa-free stay for Syrians. After saving the money to purchase a ticket to Ecuador, he was refused boarding along with another attempt to leave for Cambodia. As Kontar’s three-month tourist visa was overstayed he was not even able to re-enter Malaysia. Trapped in limbo, Kontar has survived from the generosity of the airport staff and cleaned himself in the public restrooms for months. His case has attracted the attention of human rights groups and he has utilized social media to share his story, however, it was not enough to secure his help before his recent arrest and impending deportation to Syria.
Upon deciding to arrest Kontar, Malaysian immigration chief Mustafar Ali argued that the growing attention of his plight was an embarrassment to the country stating per Bernama, a government news agency “His statements on social media shamed Malaysia… [He] was arrested yesterday because he was in a restricted area without a boarding pass.” Malaysian officials are now working with Syrian counterparts to return him to his country where he is likely to face persecution for refusing to join the military. Kontar had earlier provided Reuters with his compelling statement; “I am afraid of being deported to Syria, not because I’m a coward, not because I don’t know how to fight, but because I don’t believe in fighting… I don’t want to be a killing machine, destroying my own home and harming my own people.”
The situation has called to mind that of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, also known as Sir Alfred Mehran, a former Iranian national and now a stateless man who lived in the Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris for 18 years. Nasseri was stranded in the airport after complications in his refugee case left him effectively stuck in transit. His biography was later adapted into a Hollywood movie called The Terminal and he now lives in Paris after ending his stint in 2006 with his hospitalization. Unfortunately for Kontar, his own story is unlikely to have such a happy ending.
This case is an example of the far-reaching consequences of a conflict that can extend to even the relatively well-off Syrian diaspora such as Hassan al-Kontar whose life in the UAE was uprooted despite his distance from the war raging in his home country. He now faces a very real danger of death returning to Syria when he has refused to fight. His desperate situation highlights the vulnerability faced by those who are persecuted by their own nation and not welcome in others. These essentially stateless people are at mercy of the whims of the immigration systems of foreign states exemplified by the arbitrary treatment of Kontar by Malaysian officials. What truly seems to shame Malaysia here is not the conditions of Kontar’s 7-month airport stay, in which he had meals donated and concessions made for him by the airport staff, but the conduct of officials in detaining Kontar and cooperating with Syria to send this most vulnerable man to face persecution.