The Memo: Mehran Karimi Nasseri: Refugee status and the legal aspects of citizenship

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Mehran Karimi Nasseri: Refugee status and the legal aspects of citizenship

Isaac Hickford - 21 November 2022

This week, an Iranian man who spent 18 years living in Charles de Gaulle airport died. If you’re familiar with the film ‘The Terminal’, it’s worth noting that it was Nasseri’s story that inspired it. But his life was also a fascinating insight into the complexities of the laws around citizenship. Nasseri first arrived in the UK in 1973 to take a course in Yugoslav studies at the University of Bradford. But protests against the Shah (King) while he was at university in the UK resulted in Nasseri being stripped of his passport and expelled from Iran on his return home.

Granted refugee status by Belgium, the laws around Nasseri’s status as a refugee at the time meant that he was able to travel between Belgium, France and the UK relatively freely. In 1988 however, Nasseri headed for the UK from France in an apparent search for his birth mother (whom he believed to be British), only for his identification papers to mysteriously end up missing. It’s disputed whether Nasseri deliberately discarded the papers on the assumption that he no longer needed them, or they were stolen, but he was ultimately turned away and ordered to return to France by British immigration officials. Unable to prove his identity, to all intents and purposes Nasseri was now stateless, unable to travel anywhere or leave the airport in France.

Nasseri’s case was taken on by a human rights lawyer in France, Christian Bourget, and so began a saga well worthy of the Hollywood film it inspired. Bourget was successful in securing offers of citizenship from both Belgium and France, yet Nasseri himself resisted. Having now settled into his new life at Charles de Gaulle, Nasseri denied attempts to contact him on the basis that letters were addressed to ‘Mehran Karimi Nasseri’, a name he had now abandoned, wishing to be known instead as ‘Sir Alfred Mehran’.

In 1992, a court in France ruled that Nasseri couldn’t be expelled from the airport, as he had entered entirely legally as a refugee. New refugee documents that would allow Nasseri to travel again were hastily put together in Belgium, but required Nasseri to present himself in person. So, special arrangements were made by the Belgian authorities in 1995 that allowed Nasseri a supervised visit to the country to collect his documents. Nasseri refused the offer. 

Personal immigration lawyers working on these cases primarily function to provide their clients with advice on their status and rights in the countries they find themselves. But in cases like Nasseri’s, they also spend a significant amount of time securing evidence of their client’s identity (be it medical reports or witness statements), which can often be extremely difficult.

Finally granted refugee status in France in 1999, Nasseri chose to remain at Charles de Gaulle until 2006, when he was admitted to hospital. According to French media, Nasseri moved between hostels in France before ultimately returning to Charles de Gaulle a few weeks before his death.