Coronavirus: Sri Lanka resumes repatriation flights from UAE

About 21,000 have registered for flights back to the island nation

Hundreds of Sri Lankans will fly home on repatriation flights from Dubai over the Eid Al Adha weekend as the island nation slowly opens up its international airports.

About 1,800 Sri Lankans have travelled home on six flights since May.

More than 21,000 Sri Lankans have registered for repatriation flights with the embassy and consulate in the UAE.

Quarantine facilities for travellers in the South Asian country are at capacity and the government reinforced stay home measures after lifting a nationwide lockdown last month.

The country has reported 2,810 cases of Covid-19 and 11 deaths and is determined to keep infection numbers low.

Repatriation flights will resume on Friday and Saturday with Dubai among the cities from which flights have been permitted.
Malraj De Silva, Sri Lanka's ambassador in Abu Dhabi, said authorities prioritised pregnant women, students, people with medical conditions, senior citizens and the unemployed for previous flights.

"When clusters of coronavirus cases emerged within the country, flights were suspended to control the numbers. There has also been an issue with the availability of quarantine beds in Sri Lanka," he told The National.

“We are trying our best to send people back. On the next flights, we are trying to include those whose residence visas were cancelled after March 1 since they will face penalties.

“We have requested a pardon of fines for these vulnerable groups.”

We feel lucky and relieved to finally get confirmation that we are on a flight home

The embassy has asked for an extension until October and a waiver of fines for residents whose visas have been cancelled or expired after March 1.

Sri Lankans have been asked to submit documents detailing their visa status, job status and if they require government support on an online portal managed by the embassy in Abu Dhabi and consulate in Dubai.

Flights will be operated by SriLankan Airlines and Emirates.

In many cases, the Sri Lankan government has paid for air fares, PCR testing, quarantine accommodation and food in Sri Lanka.

Passengers who can afford air tickets and hotel accommodation will pay their own way.

The last repatriation flight from Dubai to Colombo left on June 9.

There will be two flights this weekend followed by services from August 7 to 9.

Sharjah resident Eilyas will return to Colombo on Friday after her husband lost his job in March. The couple, in their 30s, did not want to give their full names.

“Every week, we thought flights would start the next week,” said Ms Eliyas, whose husband worked in the UAE for seven years.

“But we feel lucky and relieved to finally get confirmation that we are on a flight home. There are so many others waiting.”

Ms Eliyas hopes the family will not be charged an overstay penalty on exit. UAE authorities have waived fines on a case-by-case basis.

Residents have approached community groups for support with air tickets and rental payments.

The Sri Lankan Welfare Association has supplied food to more than 10,000 people affected by the Covid-19 crisis including housemaids, workers and professionals in the hotel, travel industry and people on visit visas.

Sri Lankans, UAE citizens and residents have contributed to pay hospital fees and baby supplies for dozens of expectant mothers who delivered in the Emirates when they were unable to travel home.

“We are pushing for more flights," said Dinesh De Silva, the association president. "We know the Sri Lankan government is being hindered by the coronavirus but people facing difficulties need to go back.”

The group created WhatsApp groups to connect residents with employers posting hiring information.

“With the UAE now opening up, there are jobs in hotels and in construction so we have created groups where vacancies can be posted to help the needy,” Mr De Silva said.

“Once flights resume, people can send back their children and elderly parents and those who find jobs will stay here.”

UAE and Sri Lanka were among dozens of countries that closed their borders in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The Sri Lankan government re-enforced lockdown restrictions and postponed reopening of airports this month due to fears of a second wave.

The UAE is home to about 300,000 Sri Lankans, who are among the 1.2 million who work in the Gulf.