There’s No Place Like … the Airport
Down the stairs to Gate 4A, past the VIP lounge, around a corner and into the bowels of Juan Santamaría International Airport is a simple room with a bed, several chairs and a couple of blankets. A cluster of water bottles sits near one wall, and with books, bags and clothes strewn about, it looks like someone is living here.
In fact, someone is.
“My abode,” says José Angel Roque, pointing around the room.
Roque, 40, has been living at the airport in Alajuela, about 20 minutes northwest of the capital, since Dec. 4. He hopes to attain refugee status in Costa Rica, seeking political asylum from his homeland of Cuba. But he lacked the proper paperwork for visitors from Cuba and presented false papers from El Salvador. Denied entrance into the country, he’s lived in the airport since, while awaiting the result of his legal petition.
“I wait,” he says, “and wait some more.”
Ironically, Roque, an electrician by trade, worked in an airport for some time back in Cuba. He says he moved from job to job, straining under the government’s heavy hand.
“In Cuba, everything is under the government,” he says.
He also ran afoul of the authorities there, and says he would be arrested if he returned. That alone should be enough to earn him asylum, according to Karine Ruel, who works at the Costa Rican office of the U.N. Refugee Agency.
“In international human rights law, you don’t have to establish formal status,” Ruel says. “It was pretty clear that he was a political asylum seeker.”
Roque’s first petition for refugee status was denied Jan. 13, mere hours before The Tico Times arrived at the airport to interview him. He displays the paper with the word denegado, “refused,” in bold at the top.
He shakes his head and vows to press on. He has the right to appeal the decision twice, with the final decision in the hands of Public Security Minister Janina del Vecchio.
Meanwhile, Roque waits. He says he has heard of “The Terminal,” the 2004 Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Hanks as a man who lives in New York City’s JFK airport for nine months after a coup in his homeland voids his visa. “But I’ve never seen it,” Roque says. He hopes his stay in Juan Santamaría will be much shorter than nine months.
At the time of this interview, Roque has slept in a bed for only five nights, previously employing a makeshift bed of six chairs put together, or simply sleeping on the floor. He eats airplane food, sheepishly opening one packet for us.
“Pasta,” he says, ignoring the small cadre of ants marching along the aluminum foil.
He has showered only four times in 40 days. His room, however, smells like smoke, which is one of the few things he’s able to do to pass the time.
“I smoke, move around a little, watch some television,” he says. “But there’s no sound.” He holds up a Bible. “It helps me pass the time,” he says. “And it calms me down.” Roque has a cousin living in San José, who first took his case to court, as well as a lawyer. But he cannot contact them and must wait for them to visit in person, as he enjoys no access to a telephone, despite a December ruling by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) awarding him that right.
Such conditions, Ruel says, are unacceptable.
“This place is not adequate for someone to be living in at all,” she says. “Normally (prospective refugees) are transferred some place during the proceedings. For somebody to stay in the airport, it’s not a good precedent, to be honest, at all.”
Immigration Director Mario Zamora agrees, but he argues that his hands are tied in Roque’s case.
“Technically speaking, he has not set foot on Costa Rican soil,” Zamora says. As such, though his department can ensure Roque does not enter the country, it can neither deport him nor transfer him to another location.
Roque, Zamora says, is the responsibility of TACA airlines, in whose terminal Roque resides. Usually, according to Zamora, airlines put passengers with pending petitions in hotels. Zamora remembers a case in which an Italian man spent a month and a half in limbo while his case moved through the courts. But it garnered less attention, Zamora says, “because he stayed in the Hampton Inn, not the airport.”
Further, Sala IV ruled in 2006 that Alterra Partners, the company that runs Juan Santamaría airport, had to construct facilities where passengers with pending refugee or visa cases could stay. So far, nothing has been built.
“If Alterra had followed the ruling in 2006, this would not have been a problem,” Zamora says. “But I’m not placing the blame on anyone in particular.”
For its part, TACA says it, too, is stuck in the middle. Normally, a passenger with improper papers is immediately returned to his or her home country. But Roque filed a habeas corpus petition with Sala IV, which halted the airline’s attempts to deport Roque to Cuba. With Immigration preventing his entry and Sala IV preventing his exit, “it’s very complicated for us,” says TACA Communications Coordinator Sofía Valverde.
“Until one of those institutions changes its stance, we can’t do anything.”
The “technical fight” between Immigration, TACA and Alterra compounds the problem, Ruel agrees.
“There was a problem of coordination from the very beginning,” she says. Meanwhile, Roque waits. He has befriended some of the workers in the TACA terminal, where an employee of the airline watches him 24 hours a day. He has also received support from Ticos who have heard his story, he says, pointing to a duffel bag full of gifts, including clothes, snacks, books and a razor, which he has yet to use.
“They have been very good to me,” he says of Costa Ricans. “Almost every day someone brings something new.”
And he still hopes to be a Tico himself. He holds up scribbled directions to “El Cruce,” the San José pizzeria where he hopes to work with his brother.
“I don’t want to harm anyone,” he says. “I just want to work.”
He knows the process will take “more time.” While he would like to be able to go outside and watch television, he considers his current situation better than deportation.
“For me, if I can stay here (in the airport), it’s fine,” he says. “It’s better than returning.”
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