Snowden’s Worst-Case Scenario: What if No Countries Take Him?

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Edward Snowden, the U.S. leaker who’s been holed up so long inside the transit zone of a Moscow airport that reporters and pundits are drawing comparisons to The Terminal, the 2004 comedy-drama starring Tom Hanks, wants out.

After Russia insisted that Snowden could stay only on the condition that he muzzled himself and stopped “harming” the U.S, the whistle-blower organization WikiLeaks announced on July 2 that Snowden filed 21 requests for asylum around the world, signaling his intent to find a more permanent home.

It’s an interesting list (below, which we’ll update as more country statements come in). But after just mere hours, more than half the countries responded. Some gave a flat-out “no” (Brazil, India, Poland) while others said Snowden would have to physically walk onto their soil in order to properly file (Ecuador, Ireland, Norway). The rest are taking their time to reply.

Guy Goodwin-Gill, a professor of international refugee law at Oxford University and former legal adviser to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, says politics is the dominant factor in Snowden’s case. International law allows him to apply anywhere he wants, but it’s up to individual countries to accept him. Many of those he has reportedly approached have existing bilateral extradition treaties with the U.S.; others may simply not want to sour ties with Washington by sheltering a fugitive whistle-blower.

They may also be hung up on his status. Snowden is a U.S. citizen but now refers to himself as “stateless” since the U.S. revoked his passport. “There may be some confusion here, even amongst the states themselves, about whether this is an issue of refugee status or an issue of asylum,” Goodwin-Gill says. “They may as well find it actually convenient to confuse these two because it is politically embarrassing.” Don’t be surprised, then, if a number of countries stall on making a decision.

That means Snowden’s best choice for asylum is a country that’s prepared to ruffle American feathers, like Ecuador. Last week, the South American country renounced its trade pact with the U.S. because the agreement had become “a new instrument of blackmail” involving Snowden’s fate after he requested asylum there. Yet Ecuador President Rafael Correa later said helping Snowden’s escape from Hong Kong to Moscow was a “mistake.”

So until someone takes him, he’s at the behest of Russian authorities. “A transit zone is, of course, always part of the territory of the state in which it’s placed. It’s a myth that it is somehow not part of the state. It’s very often the case that states will establish these transit zones in order to reduce the legal rights and entitlements of individuals in transit,” says Goodwin-Gill. “All states play these little games with jurisdiction.”

Stephen W. Yale-Loehr, an international-law professor at Cornell Law School, thinks Snowden will be in Moscow “for a long time.” But, he says, Snowden may find help in Article 28 of the U.N. Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status Refugees, which specifically requests that member states give “sympathetic consideration” to those who can’t obtain the necessary documents from their home country.

As the you’re-not-welcomes stack up, here’s his worst-case scenario. “The Russian Federation could expel him since he is currently in the transit area without a valid travel document. They could expel him back to the country that he came from,” says Douglas McNabb, an international-criminal-defense attorney who specializes in global extradition. That’s Hong Kong, the Chinese Special Administrative Region where Snowden originally sought aid after leaking a trove of NSA surveillance documents.

In March, the High Court in Hong Kong ordered its government to establish review procedures for asylum applications. That’s not yet in place, meaning that applicants can stay there indefinitely until that process is set up and they’re accepted or denied. But that would place Snowden in Hong Kong illegally and, for two reasons, not bode well for him. Hypothetically, McNabb says, Hong Kong authorities could grab him after he disembarks but before he has the opportunity to apply for asylum, then hand him over to the U.S. as a courtesy. Alternatively, if Moscow expelled him back to where he came from last, then Hong Kong could do the same, which would theoretically put him back in the U.S.

“If I were representing him, I would suggest that he submit more asylum requests,” McNabb adds, on the assumption that Snowden wouldn’t heed his advice to first return to the U.S. “I would blanket the world.”

The List (So Far)
Austria: No. Snowden must submit his application for asylum on Austrian soil, said Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner.

Bolivia: Will consider. “If there were a request, of course we would be willing to debate and consider the idea,” said President Evo Morales.

Brazil: No. Brazil will not grant asylum to Snowden and will leave the request unanswered, according to a Ministry of External Relations spokesman.

China: No official response. China does not have a bilateral extradition treaty with the U.S.

Cuba: No official response.

Ecuador: No. Snowden must submit his application for asylum on Ecuadorian soil, President Correa told the Guardian. Ecuador, which shelters WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in its London embassy, was previously considered a prime destination for Snowden, but Correa’s government has since backtracked on its support.

Finland: No. Snowden must submit his application for asylum on Finnish soil, said Jorma Vuorio, director general for the migration department of the Interior Ministry.

France: No official response.

Germany: No official response, but Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has been quoted as saying he “could not imagine” the request will be approved.

Iceland: No official response.

India: No. “Following careful examination we have concluded that we see no reason to accede to the Snowden request,” Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs, said on Twitter.

Italy: No official response.

Ireland: No. Snowden must submit his application for asylum on Irish soil, according to a spokesman for the Department of Justice and Equality.

The Netherlands: No. Snowden must submit his application for asylum on Dutch soil, said Security and Justice State Secretary Fred Teeven.

Nicaragua: No official response.

Norway: No. Snowden must submit his application for asylum on Norwegian soil, according to Deputy Justice Secretary Paal Loenseth.

Poland: No. Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, said the request did not meet formal application requirements. “Even if it did, I will not give a positive recommendation,” he said.

Russia: Snowden withdrew his request for asylum after President Vladimir Putin said asylum was possible only on the condition that Snowden stop releasing U.S. secrets. Russia does not have a bilateral extradition treaty with the U.S.

Spain: No. Snowden must submit his application for asylum on Spanish soil, Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo told reporters in the Spanish parliament.

Switzerland: No. Snowden must submit his application for asylum on Swiss soil, said Valentina Anufrieva of the Swiss embassy in Moscow. Switzerland does not have a bilateral extradition treaty with the U.S.

Venezuela: Will consider. President Nicolás Maduro, visiting Moscow this week, says his country has not received a request for asylum, but he said Snowden “deserves protection under international and humanitarian law.”

— With reporting by Jacob Davidson / New York City