India to start mass repatriation of stranded nationals

India will begin repatriating hundreds of thousands of its citizens, nearly seven weeks after it banned all incoming passenger flights, leaving millions of migrant workers, students and holidaymakers stranded overseas.

In an official announcement, New Delhi said it would use aircraft and naval ships to ferry home its citizens “in a phased manner,” starting from Thursday.

The move comes after pressure from Indians stranded abroad — and in some cases the host countries where they are stuck — calling for the government to help them return home.

The repatriation effort is expected to initially focus on the Gulf states, where many migrant workers have lost their jobs but been unable to leave. So far, about 200,000 have applied for repatriation from the UAE, where an estimated 3m Indian citizens live.

The UAE, along with other countries in the Gulf, has been keen to facilitate the return of hundreds of thousands of workers, from low-income migrant labourers to white-collar staff.

The strict lockdown measures imposed in April, including a 24-hour curfew in Dubai, have now been lifted — but the economy has been stifled, forcing businesses to shed staff or place them on unpaid leave. New data on business activity show the non-oil sector hit a record low for the second month in a row last month.

The UAE, which has reported 15,192 coronavirus cases and 146 deaths, has focused its mammoth testing drive on densely populated areas and labour camps, where many low-income workers live in cramped conditions.

In mid-April, the UAE said it would review its labour agreements with countries that have refused to accept requests to evacuate workers. The country’s official news agency quoted an official who said there was an urgent need for “partner countries to assume their responsibilities towards their nationals working in the UAE” who wished to return home.

India had been refusing repatriation flights during the national lockdown, which has now been partially eased.

Indian naval ships have also been dispatched to the Maldives, where Indians play a critical role in the archipelago’s tourism industry, which has been battered by the coronavirus outbreak. The navy has said it is also able to help repatriate nationals from the Gulf states.

Indian citizens will have to pay for the transport services, and only those with no symptoms of Covid-19 will be allowed to travel. Airlines have raised prices on evacuation flights to make up for the cost of social distancing measures that reduce capacity.

On arrival in India, they will be quarantined for two weeks either in a hospital, or another institutional quarantine facility, as directed by their own state governments.

They will also be required to download the Indian government’s contact-tracing app, Aarogya Setu, which New Delhi has made mandatory for all those returning. So far, more than 90m people have downloaded the app.

New Delhi’s decision to suspend commercial airline flights as part of its effort to contain coronavirus has led to a complicated situation for workers stranded in Indian cities and overseas.

Western governments have also been running evacuation flights, and about 60,000 foreign citizens, from 72 countries, have been airlifted out of India since the suspension of commercial flights.

New Delhi has not given any indication as to when it will allow the resumption of regular incoming international passenger flights.

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