Dubai Airport
Passengers at Dubai Airport. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Dubai: As India begins the world’s largest evacuation mission by repatriating its overseas citizens stranded due to COVID-19, 354 Indians will fly to their home country from the UAE in the first two flights to depart for Kerala today.

An Air India Express flight, which is scheduled to take off from Abu Dhabi for Kochi at 4.15pm today, will be the first repatriation flight to depart the UAE for India. This will be followed by a Dubai-Kozhikode flight that will depart at 5.10pm, to be operated by the same airline. The Indian missions in the UAE finalised the list of passengers, who were chosen on the basis of the reasons they furnished while registering their names.

Selection criteria

There are pregnant women and their accompanying family members, there are people with medical emergencies, workers and housemaids in distress, families whose visas have been cancelled, bereaved family members who couldn’t attend funerals back home, a few students, and stranded visitors and tourists - including two brothers who were stranded at Dubai International Airport for 50 days - the Indian missions said.

Short-listing the first batch of passengers from among a database of more than 200,000 applicants, that included around 6,500 pregnant women, was a mammoth task for the missions, Neeraj Agrawal, Consul Press, Information and Culture, at the Indian Consulate in Dubai told Gulf News.

He said the consulate set up an operations room in association with community volunteers from Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre, Indian Association Ajman, AKCAF Task Force, the BAPS Mandir, Indian People’s Forum and Tamil Ladies’ Sangam.

Repatriation flights

“We are trying to accommodate as many deserving people as possible. We expect people to be understanding. It has been very difficult to sort out everyone’s urgency.

“We cannot have a lottery system. We had to make sub-categories to ensure there was a mix of people with different types of urgencies," he added.

Agrawal further said: “Though we want to give priority to pregnant women, it is practically not possible and not good for the health and safety of the applicants to allot a lot of them on the same flight.”

He said 11 pregnant women have been issued tickets for the Dubai-Kozhikode flight today.

“That is the threshold we can allow on a flight.”

Volunteer support

The consul appreciated the support of the volunteers in finalising the flight manifest.

“But our response ratio was very less. Many people whose names came up on top of the list were not willing to go on the first flights.”

He said that due to constraints such as this, and also given the fact that sometimes the details of accompanying persons were not being readily made available, the mission was not able to quickly reach out to those who might have been in real need of help.

“However, we have given due consideration to people who got in touch with us with emergencies. At the time of issuing tickets, we had about 20 such cases.”

He said Vipul, the Consul General of India in Dubai, led the entire operation and Pankaj Bodkhe, Consul, Education, was in charge of the Dubai flight.

A big challenge

“It has been a big challenge. Our only concern is that despite our best efforts, sometimes people with more compelling reasons might have been left out for the first flights because of the [large] number of people who reached out to us.”

Since there is a chance that some passengers with tickets may not be allowed to fly if they fail medical screening, including blood tests, to check for the presence of coronavirus antibodies, he said some applicants on the waiting list have been asked to be on standby at the airport.

People with emergencies wishing to fly to other destinations also could not be included, he pointed out.

“We had to ask them to wait. We are unable to send them to other destinations. We can see their desperation. We feel sorry and desperate.”

He said the Indian government was trying to add more flights to un-chartered destinations. A new flight from Dubai to Kannur has also been added to the repatriation itinerary for May 12, he informed.

Passengers of today’s flights have been urged to reach the airport five hours prior to departure to facilitate medical screening.