The Minister of State for Information Osama Heikal declared at the end of a cabinet meeting on Monday that a schedule for returning 3,378 citizens stranded in various Arab, African, European and Asian countries as well as Canada, the US and Australia will be disclosed in the coming few days.
The meeting was headed by Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli and attended by the ministers of foreign affairs, immigration, information, civil aviation, health and housing.
The plight of Egyptians stranded around the world is getting worse with the passage of time and the spread of the coronavirus. The need to return them is growing given that most of them are short on money and some are without shelter. However, arranging flights for them is not a straightforward proposition and requires arrangements and time given the restrictions imposed by states to stop the spread of the virus.
“We give priority to those who were on treatment of business trips or tourism and their break ended, or their visas expired, or students who were forced to leave their university accommodation and have nowhere to go,” Nabila Makram, minister of immigration and expatriate affairs explained to the media this week.
“Given that most of them have no shelter and may not have enough cash, we have to run emergency flights to return them. However, those whose contracts were terminated for economic reasons as well as residents will come at a later stage.”
She urged Egyptians who fall within the priority groups to register with embassies or consulates.
Thousands of Egyptians are stranded in Kuwait where the authorities are reported to be preparing a camp for the expats whose visas have expired. The site is big enough to hold 9,000 people who will be accommodated until they can return to their country.
Coordination is underway between Egyptian and Kuwaiti authorities to arrange for their return.
In the meantime, the Egyptian consulate in Kuwait called on Egyptians stranded in the Gulf state who came for the purpose of tourism or trade or whose work contract ended to register on the consulate’s website.
Dina, a teacher in Kuwait for more than 10 years, said that people who live and work in Kuwait or who came to visit family are excluded for now. “Thus, although I have been off for more than a month, I have no other alternative than to wait and see when the flights that will take us home resume,” Dina said.
EgyptAir ran daily charter flights from Kuwait to Cairo from 26 March to 31 March to return Egyptians stranded in Kuwait.
The situation in Saudi Arabia is no better. Talks are underway with Saudi authorities to allow more emergency flights to return Egyptians, according to the Ministry of Immigration.
Egyptian consulates in Riyadh and Jeddah receive dozens of calls and messages from citizens who want to return home.
“They are friendly and willing to help, but unfortunately they cannot give us information with regards to flights. They say that the arrangement of return flights is a matter that the state will decide on according to various factors,” Abu Ahmed, whose work contract and visa ended last month, said.
There are hundreds of students studying in England who are also waiting to be repatriated after the suspension of universities until the next academic year. Some were lucky to make it through after several flights headed to the UK to retrieve Egyptians.
“Although I fill my time by studying and indoor workouts, I am still waiting for news of a flight soon,” said Ahmed who is studying in London.
On Monday, some 500 Egyptians stranded in the US appealed to the authorities to take them home. They sent a message that they were ready to pay the full expenses of their quarantine in advance and in the venue that the state chooses.
The last emergency flight arriving from Washington carrying Egyptians in the US landed in Egypt earlier this month.
EgyptAir, the country’s carrier, declared then that it was the last flight to return stranded Egyptians.
Those who returned on emergency flights that operated after the suspension of regular flights until early this month consider themselves lucky.
Ziad, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, says he’s in a far better situation than if he would have stayed in the US.
His 14-day quarantine in the Red Sea resort of Marsa Alam will end tomorrow, Friday.
“It was a good experience. It taught me that I can give up many of the things that I thought essential a month ago. But I feel for my friends who are still stuck in the US and Canada,” Ziad added. He expressed hope that their plight will end soon.
The number of Egyptians in the US wanting to leave is nearly 1,000, according to minister Makram. Two emergency flights that arrived early this month returned 500 Egyptians.
The ordeal of honeymooners and tourists in countries like Indonesia and Singapore is no less challenging.
Most of them visited for a few days that have now stretched to more than a month. They are forced to stay in hotels or temporary shelters until they are returned home.
Makram had said earlier that Egyptian embassies in Indonesia and Singapore are trying to coordinate with the authorities for their return.
The same problem is facing dozens of Egyptians in Brazil who are left with no choice but to wait for a flight to take them home. But given the distance and that their number is not big enough to send a plane, their wait may be long.
A minimum of 140 passengers is needed to send an emergency plane, according to Makram.
Egyptians in Sudan were allowed to return home by bus via the Qustol-Eshkit crossing that opened in March. However, it was closed late last month to control the coronavirus. There are requests from Egyptians in Sudan to reopen the crossing to allow more people to pass.
All Egyptians brought from overseas undergo tests for the coronavirus and are asked to remain in self-isolation for 28 days. Those who are required to spend the first 14 days in a hotel either in Cairo or Marsa Alam are requested to stay another 14 days at home.
The return of Egyptians was coordinated by the Ministry of Immigration, Ministry of Civil Aviation, Ministry of Health and the Foreign Ministry. A task force was set up representing the four ministries to receive return requests and respond to queries. It has received thousands of requests.
In one positive development, the Ministry of Immigration launched “Let’s Support One Another” initiative in which Egyptian residents in every country are requested to help stranded citizens in that country.
The number of participants has reached 148 in 35 countries. The ministry basically helps put stranded individuals in contact with residents for help if they can.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly