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Migrant workers queue up in Dubai (MINT_PRINT)
Migrant workers queue up in Dubai (MINT_PRINT)
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India prepares large-scale repatriation of workers stranded by pandemic

Arab Gulf states join effort that officials say could bring home nearly 200,000 people in first wave alone

New Delhi: India is working with some Arab Gulf states in an effort to repatriate hundreds of thousands of migrant laborers stranded by the coronavirus pandemic, in what could become one of the largest emergency evacuations in decades, according to people familiar with the plans.

Starting in a few days, India plans to begin deploying military ships and its national airline for the effort, while Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates use civilian airliners. The first wave of repatriations could bring 192,000 Indians home by mid-June, around 100,000 of them from Persian Gulf countries where many have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, Indian officials said.

The countries are ironing out details of the effort, including how to test the workers for infection or at least screen them for symptoms before they return. India arranged transportation earlier this year for citizens who were stranded in Iran and Italy, where the virus had spread widely and governments shut down businesses and schools. Those involved only a few hundred people.

The scale of the current operation could dwarf even the emergency repatriation the Indian government organized during the Gulf War, after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. That operation returned 170,000 Indians home in hundreds of flights operated by national carrier Air India, the largest such operation in the country’s history.

“People with compelling reasons, like job loss, expired work visas, medical emergencies and stranded students and tourists would be given priority" in the current effort, said an Indian official.

The U.A.E. said it is offering free tests to workers and paying for the health care of those diagnosed with the virus but that it isn’t funding repatriation flights.

The U.A.E. and India have coordinated closely, including over transferring medical supplies and repatriating citizens, said Ahmed Abdul Rahman al-Banna, U.A.E. Ambassador to India. “The U.A.E. government has worked hard to ensure that every foreign national based in the U.A.E. has the opportunity to return home to their family and has facilitated over 150 special air repatriations for tens of thousands of people," he added.

Kuwait didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

After the first wave, another 200,000-300,000 Indians could be repatriated in the following months, most from other parts of the world, the official said. Officials familiar with the planning said the totals could change over time.

The effort to bring so many workers home so quickly highlights the profound economic changes the pandemic has wrought in a short time. Indians—along with millions of others from developing countries such as the Philippines, Pakistan, Thailand, Nepal, Malaysia and Indonesia—have long worked in the oil-rich Gulf states at jobs from building skyscrapers to waiting tables and cleaning homes.

The money they send home is a mainstay of many of these economies. Indian migrant workers top the world in these remittances, sending almost $79 billion home in 2018, according to the World Bank. An estimated eight million Indians work in the Gulf states, according to the bank.

But the Gulf states are reeling with the pandemic. Like many countries, they have shut down their economies to slow spread of the virus. Their main source of income, the sale of oil and gas reserves, has been slammed by a historic plunge in oil prices.

Migrant-worker populations—some of whom stay only months while others stay decades—have struggled during the pandemic. They often live in close quarters in shared accommodations, making them particularly vulnerable to infection. Most can stay legally only as long as they have jobs, but many lack the money to transport themselves home if their jobs are eliminated.

Since many countries locked down their borders, even those with enough money can’t return because of travel restrictions and canceled flights.

Other countries with large groups of workers overseas are also wrestling with how to repatriate workers whose jobs have been eliminated.

India’s neighbor Pakistan has millions of workers in Persian Gulf countries. Pakistan, which also has tourists and religious pilgrims stuck in the Gulf, says it currently only has the capacity to bring back 7,500 of its citizens a week, from all over the world, as it has to put them in quarantine facilities for at least 48 hours while they are tested. The country is working on increasing that quarantine capacity.

Many of those coming back to Pakistan from the U.A.E. in particular have been testing positive for the new coronavirus, Moeed Yusuf, the national security adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister, told reporters. He said that 90,000 Pakistanis were waiting to return from the Gulf, mostly from the U.A.E.

Singapore has moved in recent weeks to contain the spread of the virus in worker dormitories.

Gulf countries have also been working to send out-of-work migrants back to their home countries. Some countries, such as India, have blocked even their own nationals from returning home as they imposed nationwide lockdowns to contain the virus.

Indian officials said they expect to lift those restrictions soon and are working on ways to ensure they don’t admit a new wave of infections. Arrivals, for example, will likely be required to download a new government-operated application on their phones allowing their movements and health to be monitored. Those with symptoms of coronavirus infection will be quarantined and tested after two weeks for further medical care if needed, officials familiar with the plan said.

“It’s a complex evacuation this time around as we have to ensure proper physical distancing and medical support for people," an official said.

The first phase of repatriations could require as many as 700 flights and around 14 ships, officials said.

The Indian navy has prepared its second-biggest combat warship, among several others, for the planned evacuation, the official said.

The 16,900-ton transport ship can carry as many as 1,000 civilians in addition to crew. Those who get accommodated in the naval ships wouldn’t have to pay for their return, said the official.

Workers who still have jobs and want to remain overseas won’t have to leave. Many of those that do leave are able to pay for their own tickets or have insurance through the companies they worked for that pay for their return, according to an Indian official familiar with the plan.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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