Merhan Nasseri (stuck in Paris airport)

Just reread the Aug 20, 1998 Straight Dope column about this poor guy who had been, at that time, stuck living in the Paris airport for the past 11 years, because, after having had his papers stolen, he was a man without a country. Cecil never updated the column. Today, Merhan Nasseri would be in his 70’s. Just wondered if the guy ever made it out of the airport?

Yes. He got sick in 2006 and was taken to the hospital, where he stayed for about a year. Since 2007, he has lived in a shelter in Paris.

The Straight Dope column in question:

A previous thread:

Searching a little more broadly, here are some other threads on the topic:

MODERATOR COMMENT: I’ve amended thread title to be a little clearer to readers.

Stuck in the airport. Almost happened to me.

About two decades ago, I was asked to fly to our company’s office in Toronto. Knowing that Canada is technically another country, I called the Canadian embassy just to make sure I didn’t need anything. No, they assured me. I didn’t need a passport or visa or any other special papers.

When I got to the airport, I went to the Air Canada counter to get my boarding pass. The lady at the counter asked me for my passport.

Passport? I asked. I was told that I didn’t need a passport.

Yes, the lady assured me, I didn’t need a passport, but I did need proof I was an American citizen. A passport or social security card. I had neither.

She offered me an alternative. I could sign a document stating that I am entering Canada illegally, and I could be deported at any time. Fine, I signed the document and boarded the plane.

Trouble started when I attempted to fly back home. To get on the plane, I had to go through a small room. By the door on the other side of the room, there was an American customs agent. The American agent wouldn’t let me pass without either a visa or proof that I was an American citizen. I showed him my driver’s license and my checkbook. But, that just showed I lived in the U.S., not that I lived in the U.S. legally. I would not be allowed to board the plane.

I figured I had to call my wife and have her work things out. This was before cellphones, so I needed to find a pay phone. Fortunately, I saw a row right outside the room I was in. I went back to the other door to go to the pay phones, but a Canadian police officer blocked my way. Could I prove I was a Canadian citizen or in Canada legally? Otherwise, I would not be allowed to enter the rest of the airport.


I explained to the officer that I needed to call my wife, but I wouldn’t be allowed to pass without proof that I was legally in Canada.

I went back to the American officer and explained I couldn’t hold a job in America working for a major company without some sort of paperwork. I showed him my corporate ID. No good. I went through my wallet and discovered I had a voter registration card. He didn’t like that because it didn’t have a picture on it.

He called in his supervisor and I was finally able to prove to his supervisor that if I wasn’t an American citizen, at least I was fairly harmless. A more nefarious character would have been better prepared.

I am not sure what would have happened if I could not get the supervisor to let me through. I may have been stuck in that little room with no phone, and as far as I could tell, no bathroom.

Assuming you are a US citizen. what do you mean with “technically another country”? Canada is in all respects another country to you.

A joke based on common perceptions: The border with Canada is absolutely massive and not defended in any real sense. (It is, in fact, the longest undefended border in the world.) Moreover, the culture and economy is so similar that there’s no real sense of being in a different place when you cross the border; contrast this with going into Mexico, where there’s a language barrier, an economic disparity, and a general difference in cultural origin even if you only go into the parts which cater most to Americans. That, and our border with Mexico is such a hotbed of illegal immigration and drug trafficking that it’s a lot better defended.

And, finally, Americans love to tweak Canadians a bit. The usual joke is that they’re our hat. Our moose-infested maple-syrup-chugging overly-polite hat.

So you’re saying it really is a different country, eh?

other than those 25% of the Canadian population who speak French, of course…

Well, more like the 51st state, really.

Except when they want to harass you at the border. That can happen going either way. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, we used to drive routinely from Ann Arbor into Windsor to get dim sum (why weren’t there any decent dim sum retaurants in AA or Detroit? Who knows!) One time my friend and his wife were stopped (don’t remember which direction). Nobody knows why, but his wife, a Vietnamese expat and US citizen, was strip searched, body cavities and all. Stuff happens.

The last time I entered the US from Mexico from Tijuana, the driver got confused (we all were confused, with the bad signs and construction) and ended up in the fast-pass lane. The girl at the booth said “No worries, that happens, just pull up ahead.” We did, and the border official took that opportunity to make a lot of jokes at the driver’s (my sis in law’s) expense. She was scared stiff, though I sensed the guy was just horsing around (i.e., mentioning a $30K fine). Rather unprofessional in any case, and another example of when they have total authority over you, some of them will abuse it. An hour later we were on our way no worse for wear, other than my SIL’s nerves.

Eh, that’s Easterner stuff. Out here in the Prairies and the Rocky Mountains, it’s English all the way.

Update: Nasseri has died - at Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport: