The first wave of a massive exercise to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Indians stuck abroad began on Thursday, with two flights departing from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
India banned all incoming international flights in late March as it imposed one of the world’s strictest virus lockdowns, leaving vast numbers of workers and students stranded.
Some 15,000 nationals will be repatriated from 12 countries on planes and naval ships, in a mammoth exercise, which saw the civil aviation ministry’s website crash on Wednesday as panicked citizens rushed to register.
Two warships have steamed to the Maldives and another to the UAE – home to a 3.3-million-strong Indian community which makes up some 30 percent of the Gulf state’s population.
The consulate in Dubai said it had received almost 200,000 applications, appealing on Twitter for “patience and cooperation” as India undertakes the “massive task” of repatriation.
Indian citizens waiting at the Dubai airport to board the Air India flight scheduled to depart at 5pm. 350 people are flying out from Dubai & Abu Dhabi to Kochi & Kozhikode. 200000 Indians have registered to be repatriated from the UAE#RepatriationFlightsToIndia
📷: @cgidubai pic.twitter.com/r2gONFhrlb
— Sameer Hashmi (@sameerhashmi) May 7, 2020
Indian citizens with coveted tickets, arriving at Abu Dhabi and Dubai airports, were greeted by medics in masks, gloves and plastic aprons who took blood samples for antibody tests.
“The results came out in 10 minutes. Mine has been negative. I’m super relieved,” a 40-year-old passenger at Abu Dhabi airport told the AFP news agency.
“I’ve lost my job in the company I was working with. I’m feeling a bit weird going home – while I’m happy that I am going home there is also a sense of uncertainty.”
The oil-rich Gulf is reliant on the cheap labour of millions of foreigners, mostly from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Many live in squalid camps far from the region’s showy skyscrapers and malls.
But the novel coronavirus and its devastating economic impact have left many workers sick and others unemployed, unpaid and at the mercy of sometimes unscrupulous employers.
“We have one or two flights planned every day now for the next five or six days,” Consul General Vipul told AFP at Dubai airport.
He said most of those on board were workers who had lost their jobs, together with pregnant women, the elderly and some stranded tourists.
“Some people will be left out, it’s inevitable in this kind of situation … not everyone can be accommodated immediately,” he said.
The two flights from the UAE – both destined for the southern Indian state of Kerala – will transport just 354 people.
A flight planned for Thursday from Qatar has been postponed until the weekend.
— India in Qatar (@IndEmbDoha) May 7, 2020
According to Indian media reports, delays have been triggered by the need to test the aircrew for coronavirus.
A naval vessel is expected to arrive at Dubai’s Port Rashid.
The Indian High Commission in the Maldives posted images on Twitter of one of its warships entering Male harbour in advance of Friday’s planned evacuation of some 1,000 people.
Other flights will leave Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as London in the United Kingdom and San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Washington, DC in the United States.
But frustrations have mounted over the slow pace of the exercise, as well as the fact that evacuees will have to pay for their passage home and spend two weeks in quarantine on arrival.
“There are so many people who have lost their jobs here – they’re literally going hungry,” Yasin, a 50-year-old restaurant manager who is now out of a job, told AFP as he checked in for his flight.
“And now the government has asked for people to pay for the tickets. I sincerely want to request the government to waive that,” he said.
“They should protect their people. People do not have money to survive here, paying for flights is not possible at all.”
Those who haven’t managed to get a ticket home have voiced their frustrations in a torrent of posts on social media, while some turned up to try their luck.
Ajith, a 43-year-old IT engineer whose mother passed away two days ago, waited anxiously at Dubai airport, checking with the official who held the all-important waiting list for the first flight out.
“My mother was old and had medical issues … there is no one in India to take care of things, so I made an emergency request to the consulate,” he told AFP, before finally managing to secure a seat on the flight.