The first wave of a massive exercise to repatriate hundreds of thousands of Indians stuck abroad began on Thursday, with two flights landing in India from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Delhi in late March banned all incoming international flights as it imposed one of the world’s strictest virus lockdowns, leaving vast numbers of workers and students stranded.
About 15,000 nationals are to be repatriated from 12 countries on planes and naval ships in a mammoth exercise that saw the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation’s Web site crash on Wednesday as people rushed to register.
Two warships have steamed to the Maldives and another to the UAE — home to 3.3 million Indians, who makes up about 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.
The two flights, which landed in Kerala state from Abu Dhabi and Dubai on Thursday, were carrying 354 people, including nine infants.
“I’m relieved that I’m home,” a man on the flight from Abu Dhabi told reporters by telephone as he waited to disembark in Kerala.
“People were sitting next to each other — at least the row I was sitting, we were all sitting next to each other. They are making people get out of the plane right now in shifts — first a few people left the plane and we have been asked to wait,” he said.
Indian citizens with 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,” one 40-year-old passenger at Abu Dhabi airport told reporters. “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 labor 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.
However, the novel coronavirus and the devastating economic impact from lockdowns have left many workers sick and others unemployed and unpaid.
“We have one or two flights planned every day now for the next five or six days,” Consul General Vipul, who goes by one name, told reporters at Dubai airport.
Most of those aboard were workers who had lost their jobs, together with pregnant women, elderly people and some stranded tourists, Vipul said.
“Some people will be left out, it’s inevitable in this kind of situation ... not everyone can be accommodated immediately,” he said.
A naval vessel was 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 Harbor ahead of yesterday’s planned evacuation of about 1000 people.
Other flights were to leave Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as London, San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Washington.
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