The repatriation of 5,300 Egyptians in Kuwait whose visas had expired but who were unable to return to Egypt when airports closed following the outbreak of COVID-19, began this week. Priority is being given to women, children and humanitarian cases, Nabila Makram, minister of immigration and expatriate affairs, told the media on Tuesday.
“There are large numbers of Egyptians in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Arranging for their return in a way that protects them, and that protects Egypt, is far from simple,” she said.
Many of the expatriate workers found themselves stranded in camps prepared for employees whose visas had expired.
“The mood in the camps is volatile. People are impatient to return to their country. That explains why they demonstrated this week, to make their voice heard. The news that they will soon be returned home calmed the mood,” says Abu Mohamed, an Egyptian worker stranded in one of the camps in Kuwait.
Repatriation efforts have been underway since the closure of Egyptian airports on 19 March after thousands were left stranded. As time passed many Egyptians found themselves short of money and, in some cases, without shelter.
Hundreds of those stranded have returned in the past two weeks.
“I’m just grateful that I could afford the flight from Pennsylvania to Washington, and on to Marsa Allam,” said Ziad who returned late last month from the US where he was studying.
Ziad’s friend Omar is stuck in Canada: “He is short of money and the university accommodation where he was staying is now closed. He’s with a host family at the moment but they could soon ask him to leave given how long he’s stayed.”
Some 300 Egyptians returned from the US on board an EgyptAir emergency flight on Tuesday.
Though international flights to and from Egyptian airports were suspended on 19 March, repatriation flights are taking off and landing. EgyptAir operated flights on Friday to Washington and Moscow to bring back stranded citizens, while Air Cairo ran two flights to Kiev.
“I am relieved that the majority of Egyptians stranded here are home,” said Amal, an Egyptian who lives in the US. “However, there are many residents who want to be reunited with their families back home but who cannot because of the virus.”
Such people will have to wait. There are limited seats available on repatriation flights and priority is being given to those who were on medical visits, business trips or tourist breaks and students who have had to leave their university accommodation and have nowhere else to go.
Last Thursday, 75 Egyptians stranded in South Africa arrived in Marsa Alam from Johannesburg. Another 100 Egyptians remain stranded in South Africa. Two days earlier, 148 Egyptian passengers stranded in Indonesia arrived in the southern port city.
Repatriates on emergency flights undergo medical checks on arrival at the airport before being transported to a local hotel in Marsa Alam where they will spend their 14-day quarantine.
Last month EgyptAir and Air Cairo said they would operate 22 exceptional flights to bring back nationals. The flights, which concluded on Tuesday, returned workers from many countries, including China, the US, Russia, India, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, the Maldives, Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain and Lebanon.
“Those whose contracts have now been terminated for economic reasons, as well as residents, will need to wait to travel,” said Makram.
Egyptians within the priority groups were asked to register with the local embassy or consulates.
A minimum of 140 passengers is needed before an emergency plane is sent. The minimum figure means tens of Egyptians are stuck in countries like Brazil. They have little choice but to wait until normal flights resume.
“My daughter could afford to make her way from Brazil to Frankfurt and then return from Frankfurt on an emergency flight to Marsa Alam. The trip, and the two-week quarantine, cost more than LE40,000. She left behind 19 Egyptians who could not afford to pay that amount. They will just wait,” said the father of one returnee.
In March, EgyptAir ran daily charter flights from the UK, US, France, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The plight of Egyptian workers in the Gulf, however, is far from over.
Mustafa, a labourer, was among 150 co-workers who returned by ferry last week from Duba Port in Saudi Arabia to Safaga. On arrival at Safaga medical checks are made before the returnees begin 14-days quarantine in the student accommodation of Al-Wadi University in Hurghada.
“I am lucky to be in Egypt. But I feel for the hundreds that are still stranded in Duba and other places,” said Mustafa. “And then there is the worry that many of these people will lose their jobs, given the economic turndown in the Gulf due to the coronavirus crisis.”
The government is planning more ferries from Duba to Safaga, and the repatriation by air of workers in Kuwait. There are hopes similar arrangements will be made for Egyptians in Saudi Arabia.
Repatriations are coordinated by the Ministry of Immigration, Ministry of Civil Aviation, Ministry of Health and the Foreign Ministry. A task force representing the four ministries has received thousands of requests for help from citizens stranded abroad.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly