Coronavirus: Hundreds of stranded UAE residents hope to return under new procedures

Even as scheduled flights start to return to normal, expatriates overseas await to go-ahead from the authorities

Hundreds of residents stranded abroad are hopeful that a new application system launched by authorities will allow them to return to UAE.

On Monday, authorities announced that UAE residents abroad will be able to come back to the Emirates from June 1, provided they have a valid residency visa.

The residents became stuck overseas after the UAE sealed all ports of entry to everyone except Emiratis on March 19 to stem the spread of Covid-19.

Some have already successfully applied to fly back using the Twajudi service, a platform initially only used for Emiratis but was expanded to help arrange the return of residents.

But many residents have had their applications rejected in recent days, including Tom and Clemence Jacobs’ seven year-old daughter, Ella-Marie, who was visiting her grandparents in France when the European country closed its borders.

I tried to reapply last night and it didn't let me

Ella-Marie flew to France unaccompanied on March 8 to stay with her grandparents for the duration of the school holidays, until April 8.

As soon as it became evident that borders may close, her parents spent hours trying to book her on the earliest Emirates flight.

“Then the government made its announcement to cancel flights and she missed her arrival by a matter of hours,” said Mr Jacobs.

He and his wife have been trying to apply for Ella-Marie to be returned to the UAE since the Twajudi service was announced. After repeated system glitches, they succeeded last week only to have their application rejected on Friday saying their request with “incompatible with the requirements for entry to the country".

“I tried to reapply after that and it wouldn’t let me. It said 'you still have an application in the system.'”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation and the Federal Authority For Identity and Citizenship announced the return of residents late on Monday.

"The decision stems from the UAE's keenness to enable those holding valid residence visas to get reunited with their families after having been affected by the precautionary measures taken under the current exceptional circumstances to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic,” their joint statement read.

Residents must apply for permission via the 'Residents' Entry Permit' system, which can be accessed at the website.

Mr Jacobs said the news that his daughter would be able to return sooner was "as good as it gets".

He said he tried reapplying several times on Tuesday morning but received a message each time saying "please note that the process of issuing permits is a gradual process and within specific conditions, and in case you are unable to submit the application, please try again later. We work for you and we thank you for your understanding."

Members of the UAE Expats Stuck Abroad Facebook group said the news gave them hope they would be able to return. But many were still struggling to apply for permission on Tuesday.

The hashtag #bringbackuaeresidents began trending locally on Twitter on Monday, after it was used thousands of times by people sharing their stories of being separated from their families.

Vidhi Sajnani, a 16-year-old pupil who lives in Dubai, is among those hoping to be reunited with her family through the new system.

She has been trying to help her sister Naisha, 20, return to the Emirates from Montreal, where she is a university student, using the Twajudi system for the past four weeks.

Vidhi, from India, said she has faced technical difficulties and calls to the authority using the toll numbers have been unsuccessful.

On Tuesday, she tried to submit a new form but could not complete the task because her sister's Emirates ID was not stored in the system.

"My sister’s emirates ID is valid and has been renewed last year, but does not show up on their system," said Vidhi.

“My sister is stuck in Canada alone and we want to get her back home as there is so much uncertainty.”

Vidhi is a member of a WhatsApp group that includes 200 people trying to repatriate their children or siblings in Dubai. Around 20 children with families who are part of the group have returned to the emirate but the others are still waiting. It is understood about 1,000 children of Dubai residents remain abroad.

Linda Middleton-Jennings, who has been stuck in the UK since mid-March, said she tried to reapply on Tuesday but was unable to. She too recently received a rejection notification about her application on Twajudi.

“When you click on the link, sometimes you are brought to a page which asks you to register with UAE SmartPass, but I tried to do that and it told me to take my Emirates ID into a kiosk, which we obviously can’t do,” said the mother of an eight-month-old son, who is in her home town of  Aberdeen while her husband remains in the UAE.

“But if you refresh it enough times, you can get back to the old page, but it’s just the identical form we have been filling in since April 12.”

When she tried to fill it out again, she received an error message.

She said she was excited by Monday's announcement but her husband is more apprehensive.

“He’s just worried we don’t get approval,” she said.

Abir Saud, a 37-year-old British resident, has been trying to bring her husband back to Dubai from Riyadh for the past two months.

"We are hoping and have our fingers crossed that he will be able to come back in June," said Ms Saud, who lives in Dubai with her three children.

"We are aware of the new developments but nothing has happened yet. We have been calling the toll numbers and nothing has changed.”

On Tuesday, she and her husband tried submitting a new form but was told their application had already been received.

Sana Akhir, a UAE resident, was visiting family in Mumbai and was scheduled to return in March when borders closed.

"I'm thrilled to be reunited with my husband after three-and-a-half months," she said of Monday's announcement.

"For me, this is a blessing in Ramadan. I came here for a fracture recovery in February for three weeks, which turned into three months with no end in sight because of the lockdown," said Ms Akhir.

He daughter will turn two soon and she is concerned that her husband is missing out on those milestones.

"I have been concerned for my husband as he is all by himself without any human contact for the last two months," she said.

Ms Akhir said she hopes more details will be revealed about the flights including advice on how to travel with children.

"I've heard it takes six or seven hours at the airport alone. The system to submit an application is almost always down. Also, there have been  no guidelines about being quarantined when we return."