For the past seven years, Mazhar Khan, a resident of Lucknow, has been working with a software firm in Dubai on a work visa. On March 10, he made a last-minute plan with his wife and three-year-old daughter to visit India for a cousin’s wedding, and hasn’t been able to return since.
“Both India and UAE stopped international flights soon after,” Khan (35) says. “I am in a financial crisis. My company has announced a salary cut, and my landlord in Dubai has refused to defer our rent. I have paid large utility bills.”
Khan is among approximately 700 non-resident Indians living and working in the UAE, who are now “stranded” in India because of the travel ban in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. With several restrictions being lifted in the fourth phase of the lockdown in India, and passenger flights to some destinations resuming in the UAE, many NRIs have taken to social media to urge the Prime Minister, Ministry of External Affairs and officials in UAE to help them return. They have been voicing their concerns using hashtags like #expatshometouae, #UAE_ OUR_HOME, and #bringbackuaeresidents, which have been trending on Twitter since Monday but are yet to get a response.
Connected through a WhatsApp group now, a large section of the NRIs are now in Maharashtra (165), Kerala (83), Tamil Nadu (75), apart from Karnataka (63), Delhi (42) and Gujarat (41).
Like Khan, Ashish Gupta (32) came to Mumbai to attend a family function on March 17 with his wife and two children. He was living in the UAE for two years on an ‘investor visa’, visiting India two-three times every year. “We have been living at a relative’s home for two months, with no certainty about our return,” said Gupta.
“There is a lot of uncertainty in business. Bills and salaries are piling up,” he added.
In Chennai, Vishnu Priya (26) has been waiting to reunite with her husband in Dubai, who was recently diagnosed with COVID-19. They had arrived in Chennai to consult doctors about a surgery for their four-year-old son.
Since end April, UAE has eased its lockdown restrictions. Most of the NRIs in India, including Khan, Gupta and Priya, have filled out forms on the UAE government’s website to return home. “But most of those have either been rejected or are still ‘under process’,” said Gupta. “We want the Indian government to take up the matter with the UAE, and allow flights to take us back.”
As per the official blog of Air India Express, under Vande Bharat Mission the airline has scheduled at least 16 flights to Dubai and Abu Dhabi between May 16 and 23. However, Gupta said they had not got any tickets. “Bookings are not open,” he claimed.
“For repatriation flights, passengers are being identified by embassies and based on that the airline does the ticketing,” said G Prageesh, Chief of Corporate Communications at Air India Express.
The MEA has been bringing back Indians stranded overseas. For Indians at home, who want to return to their country of work, the Ministry of Civil Aviation and embassies of respective nations are coordinating efforts.