LAST month, Mehran Karimi, an Iranian refugee, died, aged 76, at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris where he had lived a circumscribed and stranded life for 18 years since arriving at the airport in 1988. His celebrated story inspired Steven Spielberg’s 2004 film The Terminal, his ghost-written autobiography and aptly named documentary Waiting for Godot at De Gaulle and a French play Lost in Transit.
All these narrative forms tell the story of a resilient but trapped life occasioned by harsh and inhuman immigration and asylum laws. Yet the unjust and harsh asylum systems somehow do not figure centrally in all these films and documentaries. The major thrust of the coverage pivots on his tangled Iranian backstory, his daily doings at the airport and his floundering and hesitant quest for his long-sought British identity by virtue of his reportedly Scottish mother.
One strand of the media coverage also homed in on the inconsistencies regarding his past and place of birth, apportioning blame to him for refusing to leave the airport even after the French government’s great graciousness in granting him documents once 18 years of his productive life had been wasted on a red bench in the airport.
The beginning of Mehran’s sorry fate can be traced to a time when the immigration and asylum system was tightening in Europe. His story took a sad turn when, because of reportedly stolen documents, he was refused entry into his beloved Britain where he was seeking his imagined or real maternal roots. This led to his being deported to Paris. The practice of shuttling refugees between different countries where they had set foot first was thus highlighted. The Terminal, the film inspired by Mehran’s life, eludes this crucial, political/ administrative fact which caused and prolonged his misery (Spielberg’s film shows Tom Hanks stranded at an airport because his travel papers were no longer valid due to a coup in his native country).
There are many Mehrans rotting in the bylanes of asylum systems.
Similarly, Lost in Transit is billed as a comedy — finding comic elements in such a life was, in fact, deeply political and tragic. As a result of the legal imbroglio, Mehran became a stranded, trapped refugee who could neither enter France, because he did not possess official papers, nor be sent to any other country because of his stateless and paperless condition. It took another 18 years to sort out his papers. However, by the time his papers came through in 2006, he had grown so accustomed to his shuttered and trapped life that he feared stepping out of the airport. His deteriorating mental state was attested to by the airport doctors. He spent some time in various homeless hostels, hotels and hospitals in Paris before he returned to the airport in the last weeks of his life.
Due to his circumscribed existence, he was also denied the option of reinventing himself in the wider world, as many immigrants do. He was left with the single option of committing his thoughts furiously to his notebooks, piecing together his story from a faltering memory and a deteriorating mental state. But despite long, persisting uncertainty over his future, he managed to hold on to his sanity through reading newspapers and having intelligent conversations with the transiting passengers.
Although sustained media coverage of Mehran Karimi’s life shone a light on what refugees have to go through before they are legally accepted as one, greater focus on how the dilatory immigration and asylum system robs a person of his or her identity, a settled life and health has been notably missing. In some sad way, Mehran was privileged in being allowed to continue living at the airport. But ever since he got trapped in 1988, the EU immigration system has progressively become tighter and more restrictive.
Nowadays not many refugees are lucky enough to get even within a few inches of a European border, so vigilantly policed are these areas. There are many Mehrans rotting in the bylanes of the world’s immigration and asylum systems — whether these are located in migration detention centres or makeshift camps at different border crossings away from media scrutiny. Many die when their rickety boats capsize; their calls for help go unheeded.
If there is one lesson for policymakers in the tragic, wasted and mentally disturbed life of Mehran Karimi, it is that a more humane asylum and immigration system should be devised so that such tragedies do not recur. The need for expanded avenues for safe and legal migration as well as the speedy disposal of stalled asylum and refugee cases and claims has never been more urgent. The last one would go a long way in preventing refugees becoming stranded at airports and detention centres as Mehran Karimi was.
The writer, a public health consultant, is the author of Patient Pakistan: Reforming and Fixing Healthcare for All in the 21st Century.
Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2022