Stranded Syrian escapes to safety after months of living in airport, detention
A Syrian man who spent more than 200 days living in a Malaysian airport and almost two months in detention has finally been released and is on his way to Canada.
Hassan al-Kontar's friends and lawyers feared the worst early last month when he was arrested by Malaysian authorities who threatened to deport him back to Syria. But in a video uploaded to social media on Monday, Kontar finally delivered more hopeful news.
"Today I am in Taiwan international airport. Tomorrow I will be reaching my final destination - Vancouver, Canada," he said, apologising for his long and frazzled beard and hair. "The last ten months, it was very hard and cold. I could not do it without the support and prayers from of all of you."
Kontar ended up stranded in Kuala Lumpur airport in February after he was turned away by airlines and immigration officials in various countries because of the lack of options he had as a Syrian refugee marooned by the country's civil war.
He has refused to return to Syria, where he feared being conscripted into President Bashar al-Assad's army, and often highlighted the plight of other Syrians and refugees when talking about his own situation - as he did when announcing his journey to Canada.
"Let's keep the prayers for those who need it the most, in refugee camps and detention camps all over the world. I hope they will be safe and legal as soon as possible too," he said.
A volunteer who had helped Kontar throughout the process, and supports other stranded refugees in Malaysia who wanted to remain anonymous, told Middle East Eye: "There are no words that can express my feelings right now.
"I feel so relieved. I wish all the asylum-seekers will have one day the same happy ending."
Kontar's situation highlighted the lack of legal travel routes for refugees, who can end up unable to use airlines because of strict immigration policies, forcing them into more dangerous routes.
"It’s been an intense few months leading up to and since Hassan’s arrest, so his arrival at last is a huge relief," Andrew Brouwer, Kontar's Canadian lawyer, told MEE.
"This never would have happened without the amazing group of volunteers, human rights advocates and lawyers who spoke out for Hassan publicly and privately."
"We were relieved that Malaysia agreed to abide by its obligations under international law not to send Hassan back to persecution in Syria, and grateful to UNHCR and Canada for providing a solution."
Kontar was living in the United Arab Emirates when the war broke out and ended up losing his Syrian passport when the embassy refused to renew it.
This never would have happened without the amazing group of volunteers, human rights advocates and lawyers who spoke out for Hassan publicly and privately
- Andrew Brouwer, Kontar's Canadian lawyer
He was later sent to a detention centre in the UAE, before briefly obtaining a short-term passport renewal that allowed him to travel to Malaysia, one of the few countries that allow Syrians to enter without visas for short stays.
He was later turned away by airlines and border officials while trying to travel on to Ecuador and Cambodia and then on return to Malaysia, leaving him stranded in the airport.
After more than 200 days living in the airport, he was arrested by Malaysian authorities in early October as he awaited progress on his application for asylum in Canada.
Refugees in Malaysia live precariously because the country is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the key document that underpins the work of the United Nations' UNHCR refugee agency and established the principle that refugees should not be returned to a country where they face a serious threat to their lives or freedom.
Kontar had been a successful professional working in the United Arab Emirates. But when the war broke out in 2011, the Syrian embassy refused to renew his passport and he was thrown into a detention centre.
Malaysia’s visa exemption for Syrian tourists offered a temporary way out, but after three months he had to move on from there as well - he could not get a longer visa and Malaysia does not accommodate refugees. His backup plan, Cambodia, also failed when he was deported. Then Malaysia refused to let him back in.
Kontar was not the first Syrian stuck in an airport. Fadi Mansour spent a year in Istanbul after he was designated a problematic passenger, Hasan Yasien spent nine months living in a tent in a Moscow airport, and several other Syrians have been stranded in Kuala Lumpur before.
And even as Kontar slept under a stairway in the transit zone of Kuala Lumpur airport, the Qotrash family was being held by Malaysian immigration authorities - though they were later accepted by Turkey.