What it’s like to get stuck in an airport…for a year


It’s like the real-life version of the nightmare portrayed in the Tom Hanks movie The Terminal: getting stuck indefinitely in an airport because you don’t have the right papers. This is the reality for about 30 people who have been detained in a small room in Istanbul’s busy airport – some for over a year. These young men are stuck in limbo, waiting to find out if they’ll be repatriated or will eventually obtain permission to enter Turkey. Our Observer spent a night in this tiny airport detention centre.

By official count, more than 2.2 million Syrians and 300,000 Iraqis currently reside in Turkey, which has become a transit country for migrants seeking to enter Europe.

Of the more than one million people who entered the European Union by sea in 2015, more than three-fourths departed from Turkey’s coasts.

Some people try to fly into Turkey in order to later travel on to Europe. Those who don’t have proper papers aren’t allowed to set foot on Turkish soil and are, instead, detained in airports while their case is considered.

Amédée (not his real name) is Malian, but he’s lived and worked in France since 2013. On January 26, he flew to Istanbul to visit a friend. He thought his French residency permit would allow him to enter Turkey – but he was wrong. When he arrived at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, he was arrested by the police and taken to the airport detention centre.

Photo of the detention centre in Istanbul’s airport. 

"At least in prison, you actually get a bed"

The room where I spent the night was tiny and there were about 30 of us in there. I wonder if it is even legal to stuff so many people into one room. Once you are in the room, you aren’t allowed to leave, not even to stretch your legs. It’s also really hard to sleep in there. The light is always kept on and we had to sleep on reclining armchairs. At least in prison, you have a bed! As for meals, you just get a sandwich for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The room also smells terrible.

There were only men there and most of them were young and had been traveling alone. I met a kid in there who can’t have been older than 14.

"Most of them didn’t understand what they were doing there”

These men came from all over. There were a lot of Syrians, but also some Malians, Ivorians, and Cameroonians. Many of them were trying to get to Europe but were stopped during layovers in Istanbul.

The people I spoke to all had undertaken unbelievable journeys. Most of them were really lost and didn’t understand what they were doing there.

Photo taken in the detention centre in Istanbul’s airport.

"There were no NGOs present; the men were totally fending for themselves"

There is absolutely no structure to help the detainees figure out what to do. There were no NGOs present to explain their rights to them, so the men were left to fend for themselves.

Every once in awhile, Turkish lawyers come to visit, but they only speak Turkish and English. They have to get interpreters in for the migrants who only speak French or Arabic, and that takes time.

The police tell them that the only way to stay in Turkey is to claim asylum. But the Turkish authorities take a long time to process those claims. All of the people I met were afraid that they’d be sent home. Some of them had been there for three months, others for a year.

The people I met were in poor health. They were in a poor mental state because they understand that they don’t really stand a chance of having their asylum claims accepted. But they are also in poor physical condition from eating bad food and being trapped inside all the time. One man told me that he had gotten sick, but that the doctor didn’t come until the next day. After examining him, the doctor wrote him a prescription and told him to give money to the guards so they would go pick up his medicine. But the man didn’t have any money to give them!

Thankfully, I was sent back to France the next day. I’ve stayed in touch with some of the migrants stuck there but I don’t really know how to help them.

Photo taken in the detention centre in Istanbul’s airport.

"If they don’t want to go home, they have to wait in that room”

Yekta Işık Nergiz is a lawyer for one of the migrants trapped in the Istanbul airport.

Most of the people detained in the airport aren’t allowed to enter Turkey because they don’t have papers.

Most of them didn’t get a direct flight from their home country to Turkey – they first travelled to another country before getting on a flight to Turkey. So the authorities give them two choices: Either they can be sent back to their home country or to the country that they flew to Turkey from. Generally, they don’t want to go back to their home country and they don’t know anyone in the country that they flew out of, so their only solution is to try and get in touch with a lawyer to claim asylum. But the asylum process can take up to a year, which is why some of these men have been waiting in the airport for so long. The judge who rules on their cases either gives them a residency permit or deports them.

It definitely isn’t legal to keep them locked up for so long in such conditions. But the authorities don’t really have a choice because they aren’t allowed to bring them into Turkish territory either. So, unfortunately, if they don’t want to go home, they are stuck waiting in this room.