Can Voluntary Departure Become Deportation
Living through a global pandemic is frightening enough if you are safe in your own home, in your own country. But for an estimated 300,000 UK travelers stranded abroad, the experience is both desperate and terrifying.
Some people can get home, but it is not quick and certainly not cheap. Marie Young, who was stranded in Auckland, New Zealand (at the time of writing it is unclear if she has returned home), told the BBC she had borrowed £1,350 for a plane ticket home because her airline had yet to refund her the amount she paid for her flight which was canceled when the country went into lockdown.
"There's a duty of care with airlines to get you home if something happens. They can't just cut and run and leave you," she says.
"I think the Government needs to put pressure on them. We're not expecting a free ride home, but we are expecting a refund from a canceled flight."
What Is The Government's Policy On Repatriating British Citizens?
The official UK government guidance is that the use of public funds to bring those stranded abroad due to Coronavirus will only be available as a last resort and will be in the form of a loan.
Unfortunately, the advice provided is rather thin and mainly consists of common sense, for example:
- "find accommodation that is suitable for your needs
- to keep up-to-date with our travel advice and the British embassy or high commission social media accounts.
- keep up-to-date on the latest information from transport providers and local authorities on your departure options
- contact your travel insurance provider: the Association of British Insurers says most providers will look to extend single trip cover for up to 60 days if you are making every effort to return home. This should ensure your emergency medical cover continues while you are unable to return
- keep in regular contact with family and friends at home, so they know you are safe and well
- approach family, friends, and employer for money to pay for a ticket home
- contact charities with benevolent funds that may be able to provide financial assistance, such as those with benevolent funds. Turn2Us may provide charities to contact."
Pressure On The Government To Provide Charter Flights To Get British Nationals Home
In late March, a group of 60 cross-party MPs urged the Government to do more. As stories reached the media of British citizens stranded in countries like Nepal, Pakistan, and India, demands were made that charter flights be organised to repatriate people.
On 13 April, Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab was told by the Labour party to "urgently intervene" and help citizens get home.
Lisa Nandy, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, wrote to Mr. Raab calling for him to "get a grip" on the situation, saying among stranded citizens "there is a growing sense they have been abandoned".
"Many are running out of money or medicine, worried about their accommodation, and have no idea when or if they might be able to get a flight home."
Ms. Nandy also urged the Foreign Secretary to clamp down on airlines "charging vast sums for flights home" and refusing to refund passengers for canceled journeys.
"Where commercial flights are unavailable or unreliable, the Government must overcome its reluctance to intervene and charter flights.
"I understand the Government has concerns regarding the cost but these are British citizens, many of who have now been stranded for some time, and they must be brought home."
Charter Flights Back To The UK
The Conservative Government heeded the desperate calls for action a few days later and organised over 17 charter flights to bring British citizens home from India. Planes departed from Ahmedabad, Amritsar, Bangalore, Delhi, Goa, and Mumbai.
The chartered flights were made possible through the government partnering with airlines and providing £75 million for repatriation costs.
However, 73-year-old Amrik Bola from Derby told the Guardian that the charter flights were of no use to him as he was stranded in a remote village in Punjab, eight hours from Dheli, with his wife and sister-in-law. They cannot get to the Indian capital because of the country's travel ban.
"If they've arranged those flights, why don't they think about the 15,000 people struck in Punjab? That's really bad.
"Every day we end up crying. We're sitting three of us in a room. We don't know when we will get back.
"Our family is in England, our children are in England. If we are in England, we are close to our children if something was to happen.
"What we worry about is if something was to happen to us in India they wouldn't be able to come."
In response, Acting High Commissioner to India, Jan Thompson told Business Traveller,
"We are working around the clock to arrange additional flights from locations where we know large numbers are still stranded".
UK Minister of State for South Asia and the Commonwealth, Lord (Tariq) Ahmad of Wimbledon commented:
"We know this is a difficult time for British travelers and there is a great demand for these flights. This is a huge and logistically-complex operation, and we are working tirelessly with the Indian Government and state authorities to help more British travelers get home."
Charter flights have now left New Zealand, Islamabad, and Bangladesh among other countries with priority seats given to the elderly, pregnant, and those with underlying health conditions. However, passengers have had to pay significant sums of money to get home, with flights from New Zealand costing £800.
What Should You Do If You Are Stranded Abroad?
If you are currently stranded abroad, unable to reach an airport due to a lack of funds, travel restrictions, or for health reasons, the internet is your best friend. Check the official UK government website and the British Embassy or consulate website of the country you are in for updates. It is also useful to keep an eye on UK newspapers for up to date information.
If you are having visa problems in the country you are currently in, you can contact our immigration solicitors for advice on 020 3744 2797.
Keep safe and well.