US, Kuwait deported nearly 4,000 Indians after Covid-19 pandemic broke

Updated on Jun 28, 2021 05:32 AM IST

Some Indians also returned by amnesty flights, said the report compiled by the external affairs ministry giving details about the Vande Bharat Mission, India’s largest repatriation exercise launched on 7 May last year to bring back citizens stranded abroad due to the pandemic.

According to the aviation ministry the repatriation exercise, which has brought 2.06 million passengers to India so far, is currently in its 11th phase.(PTI file photo)
According to the aviation ministry the repatriation exercise, which has brought 2.06 million passengers to India so far, is currently in its 11th phase.(PTI file photo)
ByAnisha Dutta, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

Thousands of Indians, mostly in the US and Kuwait, were deported to the country via special flights after completing their prison term during the past year, according to a report compiled by the external affairs ministry’s Covid Cell unit mentioning the flight operations during the Covid pandemic.

The US and Kuwait alone sent back 4,000 deportees. Some Indians also returned by amnesty flights, said the report compiled by the external affairs ministry giving details about the Vande Bharat Mission, India’s largest repatriation exercise launched on 7 May last year to bring back citizens stranded abroad due to the pandemic.

“These flights were mostly operated by Govt. of Kuwait to send to India those people who had turned illegal on expiry of their visa in that country. The Govt. of Kuwait paid for these amnesty flights and also indicated that the workers on return to India could re-apply for work visa at a later date,” the report said.

“Another category of people who returned to India were deportees, a category of people who, upon completion of a prison sentence in their country, needed to be brought back to India by special flights at the expenses of the sending countries,” it added.

HT has reviewed the ministry’s review report that documents the execution of VBM that was announced suddenly, the dilemma of the state governments, and the challenges encountered in the evacuation of citizens and the workarounds adopted.

The states were preoccupied with inter-state movement of migrant workers and were faced with the dilemma of allowing stranded Indians return home while migrant workers at home were still held back and facing hardships,” it said, noting that the states feared “political backlash” for restraining movement of internal migrant workers while allowing VBM returnees.

According to the aviation ministry the repatriation exercise, which has brought 2.06 million passengers to India so far, is currently in its 11th phase. But the most critical phase of the operation was completed by December 2020 when most Indians were brought back. The repatriation flights were later termed as international flights under bilateral “air bubble” arrangements with 24 countries. In addition, about 100 patients were also brought into the country by air ambulances for medical treatment.

The report acknowledged that Indians in remote areas of Latin America and Caribbean countries, West Africa and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries could not be covered because of geographical distances and logistical hurdles due to internal lockdowns in these regions.

“Also, VBM operations to specific locations in those regions were not found to be economically viable. Gathering stranded Indians to a hub, say, to either Panama City or Sao Paulo was explored but found not feasible. Plans to bring them to the US and put them on VBM flights did not materialise for the same reasons as well as due to visa issues… Ethiopian Airlines with an extensive network in African region was useful in bringing back stranded Indians in remote parts,” it said.

The report underlined that the return of Indians by foreign carriers required approval of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). The Covid Cell headed by the external affairs ministry, which was coordinating the repatriation of citizens, had to go to the civil aviation regulator for approvals on a case-by-case basis, notwithstanding DGCA’s reluctance to encourage these options that may inadvertently pose competition to VBM flights.

“It required considerable persuasion with DGCA to get approvals on a case-by-case basis. In all, about 3,000 stranded Indians were evacuated from Peru, Columbia, Bolivia, Panama, Chile, Venezuela, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize, etc. and from the Caribbean region – Antigua, Barbados, Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, St. Lucia etc.” the report added.

The Centre also allowed chartered flights to fly passengers in coordination with state governments and DGCA without the external affairs ministry or its missions. “This simplified procedure greatly helped Indian associations to expeditiously bring back stranded Indians in large numbers,” the report said, stressing that such chartered flights brought back 1.2 million people by October 2020, overtaking the number of passengers brought in by the VBM flights.

“Notwithstanding, VBM flights commenced operations on 7th May 2020, although a decision to begin VBM was sudden, State Governments, Missions and relevant Ministries/Departments adjusted to the demands rather well,” the report said.

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