At least five Russian nationals have been stranded in the secure departures area of Seoul’s Incheon International Airport in South Korea for several months after they fled their home country to escape the military draft.
One of the young men, Vladimir Maraktaev, told the Korea Times that he originally crossed the Mongolian border to get out of Russia and then flew to the Philippines, where he spent several weeks before he bought a one-way ticket to Seoul.
Maraktaev arrived at Incheon Airport on November 12, 2022, and has been stuck there ever since after his asylum claim was rejected at the preliminary stage. He is awaiting the outcome of an appeal that could be heard at the end of January.
His plight, along with four other Russian nationals of fighting age, is reminiscent of the story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian refugee who found himself living inside Terminal 1 at Charle De Gaulle Airport in Paris from 1988 to 2006.
“I left home the night of September 24, a few hours after I received the conscription notice. I decided to leave as soon as possible because they might come to get me in the morning,” Maraktaev told the Korea Times.
“I will never take weapons to go and kill innocent people in Ukraine,” he continued.
President Vladimir Putin ordered what was described as a ‘partial mobilisation’ in September 2022 to bolster Russia’s army in its invasion of Ukraine. Military planners hoped to enlist as many as 300,000 men with previous fighting experience in the first round of the mobilisation.
Maraktaev says he chose South Korea because of what he knew about the country’s democracy and respect for civil rights.
What he didn’t know, however, was that not only does South Korea reject the vast majority of refugee applications (as high as 98.7 per cent) but that the country doesn’t consider fleeing a military draft a valid reason for claiming asylum.
As a result, Maraktaev and his fellow Russian asylum seekers have found themselves trapped in the departures hall at Incheon Airport, unable to enter South Korea and unwilling to return home.
Another Russian asylum seeker trapped at the airport said he had been a fierce critic of the Putin regime before the invasion of Ukraine. He says he has previously been arrested and beaten for attending anti-government rallies and once suffered a broken chin and nose from a police beating.
The men are being helped by a local legal charity who have filed an appeal on their behalf. They are hoping that they can get their refugee applications moved into formal consideration on the basis that they face persecution in their home country based on their perceived political opinion.
If successful, they will be given the temporary right to enter South Korea and allowed to leave the airport. If their last-ditch appeal fails, they face being sent back to Russia.
While they await news of their fate, the men continue to live in Incheon Airport, relying on food handouts from the Ministry of Justice.
In a statement, the Ministry of Justice dismissed claims it had abandoned the men.
Referring to the asylum assessment process, a statement said: “The screening procedures were handled in accordance with the rules stipulated in the Refugee Act, which was enacted based on international standards for refugee screening and overseas cases in developed countries”.
Mehran Nasseri, the Iranian who inspired The Terminal starring Tom Hanks, died of a suspected heart attack in Terminal 1 at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in November 2022.
Although no longer compelled to stay at the airport, Nasseri had again set up camp in the terminal in September after deciding to make himself homeless from a nursing home where he had been living.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.