'Transit Zones' Can Extend Beyond Airports

It's believed former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden remains stuck at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport — in its "transit zone" — a legal limbo technically not part of Russia. For more on what these transit zones are, Audie Cornish talks to Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, head of research at the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

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Ever since Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor who has been leaking secret documents, arrived at Moscow's airport over a week ago, his efforts to find asylum from U.S. prosecution have been thwarted. Some countries have turned him down, while others have said they can't consider his request unless he's physically on their soil or at their borders. Snowden's been out of sight in the airport's transit zone, but he's believed to still be there in a legal limbo that's officially not Russian territory.

We wanted to learn more about what a transit zone is and how they came about. Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen joins me now to talk about this. He's head of research at the Danish Institute for Human Rights. Welcome to the program.

DR. THOMAS GAMMELTOFT-HANSEN: Thank you.

CORNISH: So I understand that these transit zones actually started as duty-free, tax-free zones in the 1980s. So how did they evolve into this kind of legal limbo?

GAMMELTOFT-HANSEN: The transit zone is a construction where a government says that, all right, within this defined geographic area, we decide to apply fewer or different rules. I mean, that applies when you don't have taxation. You have a tax rate zone, so you attract capital. But it's also been applied in the immigration context.

And with the rise of asylum seekers from the 1980s and onwards, it became very popular to have these constructions in the airport. So, you know, within the transit zone, you can enforce immigration controls without the constraints that you would normally have within a liberal democratic system.

CORNISH: And I gather these work different from place to place, right? There are the kind of public face of it, the hotels and restaurants, and then another side.

GAMMELTOFT-HANSEN: Yeah. There's a public side to this and - that we all know or anybody that's ever traveled with airplanes. But there's also a backside to this, which involves detention areas or detention zones, where more and more asylum seekers and irregular migrants are taken either by the airline companies or by the authorities operating in the airport, simply because, you know, they might not have the right documents. They'll take your side and then typically place you in one of these detention zones. Until they can find a plane, they'll take you back again.

And in some cases, of course, it happens that there's then problems bringing people back to the country you came from won't accept you. You've lost your passport on the way. And then some people have been known to sit in these detention zones often with very poor access to sanitary facilities or basic rights and procedural rights. And you're kind of left at the mercy of the national authorities or even private security companies operating these detention spaces in terms of your basic conditions, your ability to move freely. In some places, they might allow you out at night if there's no other passengers in the transit zone or the places you are confined 24/7.

CORNISH: At this point, we don't know exactly where Edward Snowden is. But can you help us understand how the boundaries of a transit zone can be defined, because I've heard that it doesn't have to mean that you're stuck at the airport.

GAMMELTOFT-HANSEN: Yeah. So that intuitively we think about transit zone as a geographically defined space within the airport. But legally speaking and in reality, governments have taken sort of quite few liberties in creating what you might call sort of smooth spaces, and then in some situation including nearby hotels, nearby detention centers, even a court many miles away from the actual airport and still sort of maintaining this idea, well, this is part of an airport transit zone. You know, persons being moved back and forth between these places are never really inside France or Russia in this case.

CORNISH: One thing. There's been a lot of people sort of joking around, likening this situation to the movie "The Terminal," which had Tom Hanks, which was a romantic comedy and was kind of fun and wacky. But what you're describing doesn't sound anything like that.

GAMMELTOFT-HANSEN: No. I mean, the airport transit zone for immigration purposes is part of a much wider, sort of deterrent strategy of really trying to limit or deny access for refugees and asylum seekers to claim their rights. And hence, conditions for many of these people being held in detention zones are waiting are typically quite harsh. So this is not where I would want to spend my summer vacation if I had any kind of choice.

CORNISH: Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, he's the head of research at the Danish Institute for Human Rights. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

GAMMELTOFT-HANSEN: Thank you.

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