Stranded on foreign soil

Print edition : June 05, 2020

At Anna International Airport in Chennai on May 9, health officials check the documents of an Indian citizen evacuated from Dubai by Air India. Photo: ARUN SANKAR/AFP

Activists highlight the plight of people from Tamil Nadu who are stranded abroad.

HUNDREDS of Indians, a large number of them Tamils, are stranded in the Gulf and East Asian countries because of the inordinate delay in bringing them back home. Most of them, labourers, housemaids and taxi drivers, have been languishing in quarantine camps and “open stay spaces” in several countries since the pandemic shut the world down. Among the stranded are tourists and students too. They blamed the Indian government for its reluctance to operate flights to Tamil Nadu, which has three international airports, in Chennai, Tiruchi and Madurai, and pointed to the lack of coordination between the Tamil Nadu government and the Ministries of External Affairs and Civil Aviation in this regard.

“While the Indian government is operating flights to many countries across the globe to fly home people of various States, it is not listening to the grievances of Tamil expatriates and tourists stranded in countries like Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Abu Dhabi. Many of them have spent all their money on food and shelter in the past two months. Many tourists have return flight tickets too,” said the Tamil Nadu-based activist H. Ubaidullah, who has been trying to speed things up for Indians stranded abroad.

Ubaidullah told Frontline that a few persons from Tamil Nadu working in Dubai, Kuwait, Malaysia and Oman had been brought back in the first phase of the Indian government’s Vande Bharat mission. “Many more are waiting to be repatriated from these countries besides Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. Sadly, the Indian government is not operating any flight to Tamil Nadu during the second phase of the mission scheduled for May 17 to June 4. It has scheduled 240 flights to 32 countries, but none for Tamil Nadu,” he said. The Kerala government, he noted, was coordinating well with the Centre for the return of its people who are among the largest bloc of expatriates in the Gulf.

The national carriers Air India and Air India Express have so far repatriated over 15,000 Indian citizens from 12 countries on 64 flights. Naval ships have brought back people from Male. Still, around 1, 90,000 Indians are stranded in various countries; of them 34 per cent are students, 30 per cent are migrant workers. The rest are tourists, businessmen, those who face medical emergencies, and pregnant women. Indian students are stuck even in Kazakhstan.

Activists say Kuwait alone has more than 15,000 Indians, mostly Tamils, waiting to be repatriated. The Kuwait government has sanctioned a general amnesty to its migrant labourers whose work visas had expired and for illegal migrants. It has permitted them to re-enter the country once the crisis is over on new visas. Besides such people, there are many on business visas, exit visas, and some others wanting to return for medical emergencies. But the Indian embassy, it was claimed, was delaying the issuance of emergency exit passports for early repatriation.

Nearly 7,000 people, who had valid travel documents, have been under quarantine for nearly a month now. “They include tourists and among them are pregnant women, babies and the aged,” said M.H. Jawaharullah, president, Manithaneya Makkal Katchi, who has sent a series of representations to the Tamil Nadu and Central governments.

Reportedly, Kuwait was even willing to transport the stranded people to their destinations free of cost provided the Indian government gave the necessary clearance. “The Kuwait government is humane and considerate. We need just coordination and cooperation from the Indian side. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister must take up this issue seriously,” said a domestic help, a native of Pudukottai district in Tamil Nadu waiting to return home, in a video from the camp.

B. Mohammed Ali Rashadi, president, Dar Al Sabah Welfare Association, Kuwait, in a mail to the Indian Ambassador said as summer was advancing, it would be difficult for immigrants to live in open and quarantine camps. “They have no money and food and shelter. Many are sick and go without medicines. All must be repatriated as early as possible,” he said.

A.B. Khaleel Ahmed Baaqave, general secretary of the Kuwait Tamil Islamic Committee, in a memorandum to External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, pointed out the extreme difficulties Tamils faced in Kuwait. “Special flights should be organised to fly home all Indians from Kuwait,” he said. In Abu Dhabi, many from Tamil Nadu who have registered for repatriation with the embassy have been waiting in quarantine for over 51 days. Those in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia also face similar problems. Many are stuck in European countries too. In neighbouring Sri Lanka, there are nearly 2,000 Tamils waiting to be airlifted home.

Anwar Iburahim, 47, hails from Ilayankudi in Tamil Nadu and is a diabetic. In his mail to the Indian High Commissioner in Malaysia, where he is stranded, he said he was among a group of people who had gone to Malaysia to attend a wedding. They have been waiting for two months to fly to India. H. Sajahan Hussain from Chennai, a first-time visitor to Malaysia on a tourist visa, has been waiting since March 9.

A senior official in the government who handles issues dealing with expatriates said the State had been collecting details about expatriates in various countries and forwarding them to the Centre, which alone could take a call on this. “It is a massive exercise with logistical problems involving both inland transportation of migrants and overseas repatriation. The Tamil Nadu government has to make quarantine facilities since the inflow to the State would be in hundreds. Those who can pay will be accommodated in hotels while others will be housed in government facilities for the mandated 14-day quarantine period,” he said.

The Commissionerate of Rehabilitation and Welfare of Non Resident Tamils has made it clear that the registration process is to ascertain the stranded passengers’ non-resident Tamil status in order to make arrangements for quarantine facilities. Ubaidullah suggested that as Chennai was a hotspot, the airports at Tiruchi and Madurai should be used for landing operations.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran

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