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According to Russian president Vladmir Putin in the Edward Snowden case, an airport "transit area" is not subject to the authority of the country in which it lies, because the passengers there are not required to pass through that country's immigration process.

Is there any legal basis or precedent for this?

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In short, Putin's wrong, or at least oversimplifying drastically. Airport transit areas are exempted from immigration regulations, but they are very much the country's property, under its authority and jurisdiction. As a simple example, if you're transiting via an airport and are caught carrying contraband there, you'll be punished under the transit country's legislation, as a long list of people busted in Changi Airport, Singapore have found out.

All that said, Snowden's definitely a legal edge case. For example, you can only deport someone who has entered the country (legally or illegally), which Snowden has not. Russia could easily extradite Snowden if they wanted to, since Snowden is now subject to Russian jurisdiction and espionage is a crime in both Russia and the US, but Russia and the US do not have an extradition agreement and, more to the point, Russia has no interest in doing so. Russia could always kick him out under some legal pretense (loitering? vagrancy?), but they'd have to find somebody to take him and issue him travel documents first!

As an ordinary traveller, though, I wouldn't lose too much sleep over this. It's very unusual to end up in this position, since the vast majority of people not accepted by their final destination are either refused boarding by the airline at the origin, or deported back to where they came from once they have tried to enter the country. It takes an extraordinary run of bad luck, like being exiled from your country, losing your passport mid-trip and being unable to obtain a new one, to end up a refugee in the transit area.

  • What would be the situation if a person who did not have clearance to enter a country, but was allowed to be in the transit area (and expected to depart the country without leaving it), was unexpectedly arrested or otherwise involuntarily taken from the transit area to part of the country outside it? – supercat Nov 2 '16 at 17:21
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    @supercat The country would grant them some sort of temporary status while they work things out. – jpatokal Nov 2 '16 at 20:43
  • It's more accurate to say that airport transit areas are given special treatment in immigration regulations. If they were truly exempted, then there would (for example) be no way for the Schengen area to require airport transit visas. But that only strengthens your point as far as I can see it. – phoog May 15 at 22:00
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The very existence of an airport transit area is a direct result of the country's laws. What can or cannot happen is entirely up to that country. Even immigration regulations (including regulations allowing transit without visas under certain conditions) fully apply. So, to the extent that local law allows it (if the authorities care about local law, obviously), Russia could perfectly have extradited, arrested or deported Edward Snowden.

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