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Some of the stranded passengers sheltered at a labour accommodation complex in Fujairah. Image Credit: Courtesy: Saji Cheriyan

Dubai: The Indian Consulate in Dubai has offered to sponsor the repatriation of expatriates stranded in the UAE en route to their work places in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait following COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Free tickets would be issued on a ‘means-tested’ basis to those who cannot afford to buy them, the mission told Gulf News.

This follows an advisory issued by the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi last week which urged Indian citizens not to travel via the UAE to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait amidst COVID-19 travel restrictions. The missions had also urged such travellers currently stranded in the UAE to return home.

“We are coordinating with community groups and associations to spread the word and encourage the stranded passengers to return home,” a spokesperson of the consulate said -.

“We have also offered to provide free tickets to those who cannot afford to buy them, on a means-tested basis,” he said.

The tickets are sponsored under the Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF) which is largely pooled from the Dh8 fee that Indian expats are charged for consular services.

Meanwhile, Air India Express, the budget carrier of India’s national airline Air India, has also offered “a special all-inclusive fare of Dh330 to stranded Non-Resident Keralites in Dubai and Sharjah who want to return to Kerala due to the recent Saudi Arabia/ Kuwait entry restrictions.”

Afi Ahmed, managing director of Smart Travels, said 150 tickets would be given out to stranded passengers on three flights from Sharjah to Kochi for a fare of Dh250. “Since there are only limited seats available, we will have to limit the offer to first 50 passengers each wishing to travel on February 18, 20 and 23,” he said.

More appeal for help, less interest to return

Community groups have reportedly recorded the appeal for support from more than 1,000 stranded passengers, most of whom hail from Kerala. The majority of the stranded passengers were heading to Saudi Arabia. An online campaign has also been launched to seek support for Kannadigas (people from the state of Karnataka) who are stuck in Dubai.

However, the consulate said the mission has so far received only less than 50 requests for free tickets.

“It looks like many people do not wish to return home. However, we strongly advise them to fly back as there is no certainty about when the travel restrictions will be over. Also, we have urged people not to start their journey unless and until their destination countries clear the entry restrictions,” the spokesperson added.

Saji Cheriyan, a Keralite who went on to win the UAE Pioneers Award in 2019 after building a mosque for workers and serving iftar for thousands in Fujairah, said he has offered shelter to around 400 blue-collar workers who were stranded on their way.

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The notification from Air India Express. Image Credit: Supplied

“Many have been here for more than 10 days. People still keep coming. On humanitarian grounds, I have offered them food and accommodation in a separate building in my labour accommodation complex,” he said.

He said representatives of the Indian Consulate had visited the premises and urged the workers to return home and also strictly adhere to COVID-19 safety protocol. He said the stranded passengers were also warned that they should not stay back if they would incur fines after the expiry of their visit/tourist visas to the UAE.

“Many of them don’t want to leave as they somehow want to proceed to their country of residence as soon as the travel restrictions are lifted. Some are also happy and thankful that their tourist visas have been extended till March 31.”

Battle for survival

Mohiudheen, a Keralite who runs a business in Saudi Arabia, is among those who could not continue their onward journey from the UAE.

He said he was lucky he could afford to fly back or stay on but a vast majority of the people stranded here are not in the same position.

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The notification issued by Embassy of India in Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Supplied

“Most of them earn very less. They want to go to Saudi to renew their iqama (Residence Permit) and secure their jobs.”

Mohiudheen said he is aware that many passengers had to take loans or pawn gold ornaments to get the money for their journey which included a two-week quarantine stay in the UAE.

“They hardly have anything left. We hope the Indian government would support them to secure their jobs or help them find alternative options to sustain their families back home. It is a battle of survival for them.”

Dr Puthur Rahman, president of the UAE national committee of Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC), said the government should also take strict measures to stop Saudi and Kuwait-bound Indians from travelling via the UAE.

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“Despite the advisory, people heading to Saudi and Kuwait are still landing in the UAE. It can be easily stopped if the government cracks down on the travel agencies that are offering special packages to them,” he said.

KMCC sheltered around 350 stranded compatriots when the two neighbouring countries announced travel restrictions in December 2020.