British Columbia

Syrian refugee stranded in airport for 7 months arrested by Malaysian authorities

A Syrian man who had been living in the transit area of Kuala Lumpur airport since March has been arrested by Malaysian authorities.

Group from Whistler, B.C., had been fighting to bring Hassan Al Kontar to Canada

Al Kontar actively documented his daily life in the airport on his Twitter account, which amassed thousands of followers. (Hassan Al Kontar/Twitter)

A Syrian man who had been living in the transit area of Kuala Lumpur airport since March has been arrested by Malaysian authorities.

Hassan Al Kontar, 36, became stranded in the airport when he was turned away from a Turkish Airlines flight in March, causing him to overstay his Malaysian visa.

Since then, a group of Canadians in Whistler B.C., has been trying to sponsor his application to come to Canada, and publicly lobbying Ahmed Hussen, Canada's minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship.

Al Kontar, who is from Dama, Syria, worked as an insurance marketing manager in the United Arab Emirates from 2006 to 2017. He was arrested on Monday, Malaysia's New Straits Times newspaper reported. 

He eventually lost his work permit after the Syrian conflict broke out and was left scrambling to find a country that would issue him a visa so he would not have to return to Syria.

In an email to CBC News, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Charlie Yaxley said the agency is aware of Hassan's arrest and is in communication with Malaysian authorities.

"[We] have reiterated to them the need to respect relevant international laws, particularly on the principle of non-refoulement (forcibly returning a refugee/asylum-seeker to their country of origin)," he said.

Malaysia is not a signatory to the United Nations' 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Malaysian immigration chief Mustafar Ali told local media that Al Kontar's social media had "shamed" Malaysia, and that he was arrested for being in a restricted area without a boarding pass.

In April, Al Kontar told CBC News he couldn't return to Syria because he's wanted for military service and fears he'll be arrested upon landing. He's also Druze, a minority religious group in Syria that has been targeted by extremist groups.

Tweeting the terminal

Since he became stranded in the airport, Al Kontar documented his existence — sometimes humorously, sometimes despairingly — in a long airport hallway, marked by rows of chairs and two bathrooms.

He ate three airline meals a day, and would occasionally manage to give cleaning staff money to bring him a cup of coffee or food from McDonald's.

His Twitter feed, which amassed thousands of followers, documented him trying to perform tasks like giving himself a haircut, working out, knitting a scarf and tending to plants. In one of his last posts before his arrest, Al Kontar wrote about seeing the sun for the first time in awhile.

In 2014, the Canadian government intervened to bring 21-year-old Syrian refugee Majd Agha to Canada.

Like Al Kontar, Agha became trapped in Thailand's Phuket airport for months after being turned away from a flight.

Malaysian authorities and Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees Canada did not immediately respond to CBC's request for comment.

About the Author

Michelle Ghoussoub

@MichelleGhsoub

Michelle Ghoussoub is a journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. She has previously reported in Lebanon and Chile. Reach her at michelle.ghoussoub@cbc.ca or on Twitter @MichelleGhsoub.

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