Red tape confines man to airport Stranded: Expelled from his country 20 years ago for his political views, an Iranian emigre who lost his refugee documents makes a home in Terminal One.

Sun Journal

March 11, 1998|By Susannah Patton | Susannah Patton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ROISSY, France -- It's 11: 30 on a weekday morning in Charles de Gaulle Airport's Terminal One, and passengers are sipping coffee and flicking cigarette ashes onto the gray linoleum floor. Flight attendants gather with sandwiches around a small table to pass the time before they will ride the glass-enclosed escalators to their plane and fly away.

One man, however, has been waiting patiently for 9 1/2 years. Merhan Karimi Nasseri, nicknamed Alfred by the airport staff, sits on a red plastic bench and writes in his loose-leaf diary. By his side on a luggage rack sit six gray, neatly stacked airline cartons containing thousands of journal entries, back issues of Time magazine, books and his few, frayed possessions.

In August 1988, Nasseri landed at Charles de Gaulle airport with no documents, the result of bungled bureaucracy and bad luck. Since then, Europe's increasingly strict immigration and refugee laws and Nasseri's deteriorating mental state have trapped him in a legal no-man's land.

Nasseri, 48, frail with thinning dark hair, sunken eyes and hollow cheeks, says he still hopes one day to leave Charles de Gaulle. Those among the airport staff who watch out for him, however, say they think he is here for good.

"He's like a part of this building now," said Cecile Bechet, who has worked as a clerk at the Lufthansa airlines counter for the past 18 years. "He sits there reading or writing and he never bothers anyone. I don't think he'll ever leave."

Nasseri, who was expelled from his native Iran for his political views two decades ago, has drawn dozens of journalists to his corner beside a Burger King in Terminal One. A 1994 French film starring Jean Rochefort dramatized his plight, and a U.S. movie producer has shown an interest in his story. But Nasseri's tale is convoluted and, at this point, a Hollywood ending is looking less and less likely.

"Alfred's story is so crazy that people have a hard time following it," says Dr. Philippe Bargain, the airport's doctor who has tried to help Nasseri. "He is unique. The problem now is that he has been here so long he has become fossilized. He is afraid to leave."

Nasseri's life story goes something like this, according to Bargain and other airport staff members:

He was born in Soleiman, a part of Iran then under British jurisdiction, to an Iranian father and a British mother. After growing up in Iran, he moved in 1974 to Bradford, England, to pursue a post-graduate course in Yugoslav studies. When he returned to Iran, he was imprisoned for protesting against the shah, then expelled without a passport.

Nasseri came to Europe and bounced from capital to capital for nearly four years, applying for political asylum in several countries. In 1981, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Belgium granted him refugee credentials that allowed him to seek citizenship in a European country. By then the Shah of Iran had been overthrown.

Nasseri decided on England, but got only as far as Paris, where, in 1988, his briefcase containing the refugee certificate was stolen in a train station.

Several months later, Nasseri boarded a plane for London anyway, showing French police a copy of the theft report. But British immigration officers sent him back to Charles de Gaulle, where he has remained ever since. French police initially arrested him, but as he had no official documents, there was no country to which he could be deported.

Police and immigration officials now leave Nasseri alone. From his bench in the dimly lit Terminal One, the frail, soft-spoken man, with help from his lawyer, Christian Bourguet, has struggled to define his legal status.

A French court ruled in 1992 that Nasseri could not be expelled from the airport. But French authorities refused to give him a refugee or transit visa.

Nasseri then attempted to get his original refugee documents reissued, but the Belgian government refused to allow him into the country to retrieve the papers. Finally, in 1995, Belgium offered Nasseri the opportunity to settle there, if he agreed to live under the supervision of a social worker. With his heart set on Britain, Nasseri refused.

That offer still stands, airport officials say. In addition, Nasseri could benefit from an immigration law currently before the French Senate, which would allow him to claim residency papers in France because he has spent more than five years on national territory.

Even without official papers, he could leave the airport if he dared, Bargain notes. "Alfred's case is so special that no one is going to put him in jail," he said.

French immigration authorities declined to comment on Nasseri's case.

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