PARIS — Talk about airport delays.
Merhan Karimi Nasseri has waited patiently in Charles de Gaulle airport for the past 11 years, sleeping on a red plastic bench, hoping for official political refugee status.
Now, the 54-year-old Iranian native can leave his airport home if he wants: Belgium has granted him refugee credentials.
"We are very pleased for him," said Dominique Deladrier, the Belgian consul in Paris. "If we had known the extent of his dilemma earlier, we could have straightened this out a long time ago."
Nasseri, frail with long thinning hair, sunken eyes and hollow cheeks, arrived at Charles de Gaulle in August 1988 after bouncing around Europe with no documents, a victim of bureaucratic bungling and a string of bad luck.
Since then, Europe's increasingly strict immigration and refugee laws, and Nasseri's deteriorating mental state, have kept him trapped in a legal no man's land.
Those close to him say the years of living in the underground terminal have taken a toll on his mental state, and they doubt he will ever leave.
"I hope he will take off soon because it isn't normal or healthy to live underground in an airport terminal," said Philippe Bargain, the airport's doctor, who has tried to help Nasseri. "But the problem is that he is afraid to leave. He has become fossilized here."
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Belgium granted Nasseri refugee status July 2. The documents allow him to travel to Belgium, where he would be provided shelter and counseling.
Nasseri, nicknamed Alfred by the airport staff, says he was surprised when the papers were delivered. But he is insecure about leaving Terminal One, where airport employees have given him food, clothing and pocket change, and he has become a minor celebrity among passengers.
"Eventually, I will leave the airport," he said, smoking a pipe on his bench in the terminal Tuesday. "But I am still waiting for a passport or transit visa."
Nasseri was born in Soleiman, a part of Iran then under British jurisdiction, to an Iranian father and a British mother. He left Iran to study in England in 1974. When he returned, he was imprisoned for protesting against the shah and expelled without a passport.
He went to Europe, where he applied for political asylum in several countries. In 1981, the UNHCR in Belgium gave him refugee credentials, but his briefcase containing the refugee certificate was stolen in a Paris train station.
French police later arrested him, but because he had no official documents, there was no country to which he could be deported. He has been at the Paris airport ever since.
His daily routine consists of showering in staff facilities, writing in his diary, reading magazines and surveying passing travelers.
"He's a part of the airport now," said Ute Lamberton, a ticket agent for Lufthansa Airlines. "He's like a prisoner told he is free after years in jail. I'm not sure he could make it on the outside."