International human rights groups on Thursday urged the Malaysian government to find a solution for Syrian asylum seeker Hassan al-Kontar after a rejection from Cambodia has left him stranded in a Kuala Lumpur airport for more than a month.
Al-Kontar has been in airport limbo for the past 37 days after his visa expired in Malaysia. He was attempting to reach Ecuador to seek asylum, but his travel plans were thwarted, first in Malaysia and then in Cambodia.
On Wednesday, Al-Kontar described a bureaucratic nightmare facing citizens of war-ravaged Syria. He said on Thursday that the UN’s refugee agency had contacted him about his situation.
“I am trying to act strong” he said on Wednesday. “I don’t want to collapse.”
Al-Kontar was turned away in Cambodia because he did not have enough money to support his stay in Cambodia “and he did not know where to stay either”, said Sok Veasna of Cambodia’s Immigration Department.
Not all tourists are questioned about their finances on arrival, however, and Al-Kontar said he assured authorities he could have more money wired to him.
Asked about treatment of tourists from the Middle East and Africa compared to those from countries such as Australia, Veasna asked, “Are you saying Cambodia immigration officers [are] racist?”
“We have visa on arrival, [but that] does not mean we allow everyone to enter Cambodia without our security check or different layers,” he said in a message.
It’s not the first time a rejection from Cambodia – one of the few countries where Syrians can, in theory, get a visa on arrival – has led to a long stint in airport limbo.
According to the Star newspaper in Malaysia, two Palestinian refugees stayed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport for 52 days after Cambodia turned them back on October 15 last year.
On December 6, the siblings were granted a two-week pass to enter Malaysia in order to process a visa for Germany, the paper said.
“Hassan’s case is actually not uncommon for refugees from Syria and Palestine,” said Lilianne Fan, deputy chair at the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network.
“The situation in Syria continues to be extremely dangerous, so it is no surprise that people continue to flee to seek refuge elsewhere,” she said in a message. “Unfortunately, many countries in Asean have not signed the Refugee Convention and even those who have, like Cambodia, have a high rate of denial of entry at immigration for citizens of conflict affected countries including Syria.”
Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, said it was “astonishing Cambodia thinks it’s okay to shoo away those seeking to escape hellish situations like the one faced by Hassan”, and urged Malaysia to act.
“Malaysia’s leaders continue to say they are concerned about the bloodshed and horror being inflicted on civilians during Syria’s ongoing civil war, but cases like Hassan Kontar’s will demonstrate whether Malaysia is prepared to back that rhetoric with real action,” he said.
UNHCR spokesman Keane Shum declined to comment on individual cases, but said that “all countries have the right to enforce their immigration laws”.