The myths behind airport transit areas: are they really a no man’s land?

Legal experts agree that a country has sovereignty over these zones

A passenger walks near the embarking gate at Barajas International Airport.
A passenger walks near the embarking gate at Barajas International Airport. Juan Medina (r)

"There is no such thing as no man’s land at the airport. That is nothing but fiction,” says Antonio Remiros Brotons, a professor of international law at Madrid’s Autónoma University. “The so-called transit zones are part of that country’s territory.”

The observations of Remiros coincide with other legal opinions offered by experts regarding the Russian government’s explanation that wanted former US contractor Edward Snowden, who is holed up in the transit area at the Moscow Sheremetyevo International Airport, never entered the country.

“The state is obliged to comply with its obligations on land and sea. The only areas where it cannot act accordingly is inside the diplomatic missions of third countries due to bilateral agreements,” Remiros explained.

While Snowden awaits his fate at the international airport, US President Barack Obama told reporters in Dakar on Thursday that he was not going to order military jets to intercept any aircraft the wanted contractor may board heading to a third country. “We are not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” Obama said.

The transit areas at Barajas are “blocked-off zones” for waiting passengers “who have not effectively crossed the border.”

There are airports, such as Miami International, without such transit areas. Yet thousands of passengers fly into the Florida airport to board flights to other countries.

Alejandro del Valle Gález, a professor at the International Public Law Institute in Cádiz, published a study on airport transit areas in which he states that these zones have multi-faceted purposes. Besides being used by passengers en route to third destinations, they are also holding areas for people who are being deported from, or denied entry into, the country. People requesting asylum are also told to wait in these areas until government authorities decide what to do.

In any case, the movements of such passengers are restricted.

Different countries have different regulations on how these transit areas should be treated. The problem, according to De Valle, is that the normal practice applied to these areas has always “created a host of legal problems.”

Spanish police sources coincide with these legal experts, saying there is “not much in the way of laws” governing these zones at the nation’s international airports. Even the European Union does not have a common policy regarding transit areas.

According to top police officials, the transit areas at Barajas International Airport are “blocked-off zones” for waiting passengers “who have not effectively crossed the border.”

In-transit passengers can avoid hassles with immigration authorities, and it also saves time and resources for police and customs officials. But because the so-called no man’s land doesn’t exist, Spanish police patrol these areas regularly and keep a watchful eye on all passengers there.

All of the sources consulted by EL PAÍS said that these small territories fall “under the sovereignty” of the country they are in and no restrictions are applied.

So what happens when a person asks for asylum in one of these transit zones? By law, the Spanish government would have to study the case and, if granted, the person would be allowed to enter Spain. If asylum is denied, then the person won’t be allowed entry and will be put on a plane to another country. The Spanish government will first have to be assured that the person won’t suffer any kind of persecution at the final destination.

“What would be impossible today is what took place in the Tom Hanks movie, The Terminal — no one can live in limbo for years,” said one Spanish border police officer.

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS