The United Arab Emirates wants foreigners to fly out as soon as possible but their home countries might have trouble accepting them.
The issue of the repatriation of thousands of expatriate workers has threatened to taint the UAE’s relations with India and Pakistan.
Over the weekend, Abu Dhabi said it would impose strict restrictions including the introduction of work visa quotas for countries which are not cooperating in taking back their stranded citizens, many of whom have lost jobs.
Even though the UAE hasn’t named any specific country, Indians and Pakistanis make up the first and second-largest expat communities, respectively.
“We will very soon announce a timetable for taking back our citizens,” Ashique Shaikh, a spokesman for the Pakistani consulate in Dubai, told TRT World on Tuesday.
More than 25,000 Pakistanis have registered via online applications with the Dubai and Abu Dhabi diplomatic missions, expressing their desire to return home.
“Some of them have lost their jobs or are going on unpaid leave while others were here for a visit and have been left stranded,” said Shaikh, referring to the suspension of flights.
Pakistan’s Ambassador to the UAE, Ghulam Dastagir, told Gulf News that lack of quarantine facilities at the airports has delayed the repatriation process.
With 5,812 cases and 100 deaths from the coronavirus, the impact of the pandemic in Pakistan isn’t as severe as in other countries such as Italy, where more than 20,000 people have died.
But there are serious concerns that Pakistan hasn’t carried out enough tests to identify the extent of infections and its hospitals aren’t equipped to deal with a rush of patients. There are around 2,100 ventilators in the entire country.
It is the 23rd day of the flight closure. The govt has not announced a single repatriation flight for USA. Leave USA, not a single flight is announced for UAE, that is just 1.5hrs away. What utter shame. UAE is threatening Pakistan to ban its citizens from recruitments.— AreeshaPU (@AreeshaPU) April 12, 2020
Pakistanis stranded abroad will test Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ability to handle the crisis. Khan reluctantly allowed lockdowns in certain areas as he feared that a prolonged closure of businesses and markets could lead to mass starvation among the poorest segment of society.
Last week, hundreds of Pakistani workers protested outside the Dubai consulate, shouting that they don’t need rations and want to go home instead.
More than 80 percent of the UAE’s 9.6 million population consists of expats. As countries around the world have enforced lockdowns and social distancing rules to protect their citizens, this has apparently added to the anxiety of the tiny Emirati population.
A steady stream of news reports and articles has come out in recent days, basically blasting India and Pakistan for not showing urgency in taking back their people.
More than 1.6 million Pakistanis work in the UAE, many of them as taxi drivers or labourers. They live in shared accommodations, get minuscule salaries and can be fired without any benefits.
India and Pakistan, both of which have a fragile health infrastructure, have suspended international flights to stop infections from being imported. Both nuclear-armed rivals have linked the Covid-19 breakouts to international travel.
Why the delay?
A court in the Indian state of Kerala asked the government to bring back stranded Indians immediately. More than 3.3 million Indians work in UAE, making them the largest expat community, and many of them are from Kerala.
It's shameful that India has put off repatriation despite efforts from the UAE. Why are you in no hurry to save your people, while other countries are hurrying to do so? 3/6#IndiaTakeResponsbility #IndiaHelpRepatriate @VMBJP @MOS_MEA @narendramodi@ShashiTharoor @timesofindia— Lisa (@Annalisa_Ax) April 12, 2020
But Kerala is an exception when it comes to containing any epidemiological catastrophe. Its experience with handling the deadly Nipah virus in 2018 left it better prepared to deal with the coronavirus epidemic.
According to some reports, some 10,000 people, mostly from Kerala, are stranded without jobs or money to sustain them.
The story is different elsewhere in India, where a strict lockdown has displaced hundreds of thousands of labourers who don’t have any social security cover.
India’s ambassador to the UAE, Pavan Kapoor, said on Saturday that evacuating a large number of people from a foreign country could jeopardise New Delhi’s efforts to contain the virus.
But Kerala is pushing New Delhi to bring back its citizens. A copy of a leaked letter, sent by Kirala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently, shows concerns about Dubai’s ability to stop the spread of the virus among expat workers.