Coronavirus: thousands of Indians in UAE register for flights home

Officials believe priority will be given to those with health issues, the elderly, pregnant women and those financially affected by the pandemic

Amal Kumar Mandal and his wife Tripti, pictured with their grandchildren Anahita and Ayantika, have renewed hope of returning to their home in Vadodara, India. Courtesy: Amal Kumar Mandal  
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Thousands of Indians in the UAE signed up within hours of an online registration scheme for repatriation flights being launched.

The data collection website set up by the Indian Consulate in Dubai and the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi to plan for the eventual return of citizens crashed soon after going live due to the large amount of people seeking to apply.

The process of counting the numbers of Indians hoping to fly home is now well under way, in a massive exercise that could far surpass the 70,000 initial estimate from the UAE.

Our health is fine but after so many weeks I'm finally feeling good with this news

The southern state of Kerala alone has said it had readied quarantine facilities for 200,000 non-resident Indians from across the world.

Many Indians are aiming to return to India after losing jobs or having their salaries cut to the economic impact of Covid-19, while others were tourists stranded in the country when flights were grounded.

“The number of people who want to go back will be pretty big especially in the initial days and our challenge will be in deciding who goes first,” said Vipul, the Indian consul general in Dubai.

“The website is crashing because of the amount of people trying to access it.

"We haven’t got guidelines from Delhi about who will be on the first flight but I guess it will be medical cases, pregnant woman, the elderly, Indians stranded in Dubai airport and workers in a bad condition.”

He said the consulate would check workers who met the criteria for aid from the Indian Community Welfare Fund that assisted overseas citizens in need.

Registering with the consulate and embassy would not guarantee a seat and the aim was to estimate the numbers travelling to different states.

Despite the glitches, more than 9,000 people had signed up on Thursday morning, within hours of the launch.

Indians will need to pay for the flight home with the government assisting in some cases of workers in distress.

India is yet to open airspace for international commercial travel.

Indian media has reported that some state governments have already told Prime Minister Narendra Modi they planned to extend the nationwide lockdown beyond May 3 in hotspots that include Mumbai and Pune in western Maharashtra and in areas of New Delhi.

Shukoor Ali Kallungal, president of the Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre in Abu Dhabi, said the highest numbers would be people on visit visas.

“We are getting calls every day asking when flights will start and whether the government will pay for their ticket,” he said.

“There are many diabetes and heart patients who have decided they want to join their families. We have told them not to panic but everyone wants to go back to their family.”

An elderly couple stranded at Dubai International Airport for more than five weeks hope to be home by next week.

“I will be so relieved to go back,” said Amal Kumar Mandal, 75, who has been stuck with his wife at a hotel inside the airport since March 21. The Mandals are among 19 passengers stranded at the airport.

“My mind will be at ease once I can fill up the form and submit it. Our health is fine but after so many weeks I’m finally feeling good with this news.”

The grandparents were transiting Dubai after visiting family in Sydney when a storm delayed the last flight to India before the country imposed a nationwide lockdown and suspended flights.

The announcement gave some relief to workers who have not been paid by employers for the past two months.

“I have no job and no money,” said Amanullah Iqbal, a garment store salesman who lost his job.

“If I can’t send money home there is no reason for me to stay. I haven't been able to register but I will keep trying.”

Others said they would wait to see if employers reopen businesses after restrictions were partially lifted across the UAE.

“My family is asking me to come back and without salary how can I pay room rent,” said Haneefa Alikunki, a cosmetic store employee who relies on daily food parcels delivered by volunteers.

He lives in an apartment with 22 other men who each pay Dh500 a month for the accommodation, electricity and internet.

“We have been asking whether our shop will open and I cannot wait longer than May 10 because how can we survive without money.”

Citizens have been asked to state a ‘compelling reason’ for travelling back to India, the type of visa and the status of their Covid-19 test.

In case of families and companies, details must be filled in for each person separately.