Malaysia should release Syrian man arrested after months in airport: U.N.

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Syrian man arrested this week after spending months in a Malaysian airport should be released immediately and not sent to his war-torn homeland, the United Nations said on Thursday.

Stranded in March at KLIA2, Kuala Lumpur’s budget terminal, Hassan al Kontar had posted videos of his daily life on Twitter and Facebook that attracted the attention of rights groups and media.

The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) has not had access to al Kontar, according to Yante Ismail, a spokeswoman in the Malaysian capital.

“However, we have been in contact with the Malaysian authorities, seeking access to him, and asking for his immediate release,” she said in an email.

The 37-year-old, who could not be reached through social media, previously said he did not want to return to Syria, where he feared arrest after refusing to enlist in compulsory military service.

A former insurance salesman, al Kontar has said he was living in the United Arab Emirates when war broke out in Syria. He was deported to Kuala Lumpur in 2016, he said, after the Syrian embassy in the UAE refused to renew his passport.

He has said he tried to leave Kuala Lumpur, first for Ecuador, but airline staff refused to board him. In March, he attempted to go to Cambodia, but immigration officials deported him back to Malaysia.

His case has invited comparisons to the Steven Spielberg movie “The Terminal”, in which Tom Hanks played an Eastern European traveler stuck in New York’s JFK airport after his passport was revoked following a coup in his home country.

Police arrested al Kontar on Monday, according to the rights group Amnesty International.

The group’s Malaysia researcher, Rachel Chhoa-Howard, said it is unclear what happened next or who his lawyer is.

“He is apparently being investigated for entering a forbidden area of the airport,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

During months in limbo, al Kontar said he depended on the kindness of airport and airline staff for food and sundries.

Malaysia’s immigration department did not respond to requests for comment, while the airport declined to comment.

The UNCHR has asked Malaysian authorities to respect international laws relating to his situation, in particular, the principle of “non-refoulement” - to forcibly return a refugee or asylum-seeker to their country of origin, said Ismail.

“Hassan al Kontar is registered with UNHCR as a person of concern and, as such, is in need of international protection,” she said.