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Tuesday Apr 07 2020
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Coronavirus: Thousands of Brits stuck in ‘un-chartered’ territory in Pakistan

LONDON: The United Kingdom's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has announced that British citizens from India, Philippines, Bolivia, and Ecuador will be brought back to the UK through chartered flights, but the same facility has not been offered to Britons currently stranded in Pakistan.

There are about 100,000 British nationals in Pakistan at any given time. A majority of them are dual nationals, and an estimated 21,000 are temporary visitors from the UK.

Of the latter, around 8,000 short-term travellers have recently contacted the British High Commission that they want to return home immediately.

Though some special flights to take them home have been arranged by PIA on the request of the British High Commission, due to their exorbitant fares, not all are able to afford them.

One commercial and three special flights were operated last week, which ferried around 1,000 passengers to Manchester and London. Officials say they are trying to arrange eight more this week. 

PIA today had to arrange contract pilots to operate a flight from Karachi to Heathrow due to a stand-off between PIA management and the Pilots Association, which ended late in the afternoon. 

Meanwhile, the Britons stuck in Pakistan are livid over being ignored by the British government. Although 4,000 travellers in total have been sent back on special flights arranged by PIA and the British government, an estimated 20,000 British citizens remain in Pakistan with an uncertain future.

While some of the stranded Britons in Pakistan have family support systems, a vast number are facing immense financial distress caused by the cancellation of flights since Pakistan closed its airspace on March 21. Instead of being given refunds for their tickets, passengers are being offered flight credits for unspecified dates by PIA.

British Pakistanis have complained that the High Commission has not helped them deal with the apathy shown by PIA staff even as the latter demand extraordinary prices. They have complained that while government and High Commission officials have congratulated each other on Twitter for doing a great job, there is little relief actually being given to stranded citizens.

The FCO has so far not provided answers of what British officials are doing to help Britons about their cancelled tickets and cancelled flights.

The FCO had earlier announced 70 million pounds for the repatriation of stranded citizens across the globe; but, apparently, Britons stuck in Pakistan are not receiving any financial support from the British government at all.

Britons stranded in Pakistan have said that the British High Commission advised them to seek compensation from PIA using their rights, but most of the people are unable to grasp the legal complexities involved in seeking compensations.

“The High Commission is asking us to do what it should be doing for us as a policy. We have been left to the mercy of state agents and PIA. All promises are being made on social media for media consumption,” complained a Briton who has been unable to get his seat confirmed despite all efforts.

A recent press release signed by Dominic Raab, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, said: "From next week, the government will start to bring stranded British travellers back from India with flights from Delhi, Goa, and Mumbai. Passengers interested in these flights from India are advised to check the travel advice for India on which we will be updating when booking for these flights opens."

British government officials say that chartered flights have been arranged for places where no commercial routes are available — but places like Delhi, Goa and Mumbai have well-established commercial routes.

The cost of a ticket, for example from Goa, on a chartered flight is about 680 pounds, whereas PIA announced that it is charging between 685-750 pounds per passenger. However, most PIA passengers said they were charged at the higher end of the fare bracket, which is close to 750 pounts.

“If PIA is charging us more, then why is our government not getting chartered flights for Pakistan,” a stranded British citizen asked.

The matter is so serious that Emily Thornberry, MP, a former shadow foreign secretary and now shadow international trade secretary, has written to Foreign Secretary Raab asking him why no chartered flights have been arranged to bring back British citizens from Pakistan.

Thornberry’s letter is also signed by Jeremy Corbyn, the new deputy leader Angela Rayner and 73 other MPs. It clearly says British Pakistanis desperately need to come back.

“Many of these nationals are elderly, vulnerable and suffer from critical underlying conditions,” it said.

It expressed “concern that the High Commission in Pakistan is not adopting examples of best practice that we have seen from other embassies around the world”, a reference to the immediate efforts made by countries such as Germany and France to evacuate citizens when travel restrictions started to be imposed around the world from the middle of March.

The British High Commission had advertised that they have set up an emergency financial support system on their website, including a 24-hour phone desk. Britons who can't afford their flight back are urged to contact the High Commission. The officials say there is no lengthy process to apply for the loan and most are turned around quickly, but the loans are only given out on an exceptional basis.

Those who have contacted the High Commission find the process complicated and complained that it takes time. They say the loan offered is with strict conditions to repay. However, highly placed sources told Geo that the British Government has given new instructions to adjust the loan criteria and ceilings to help those facing financial difficulties in buying new tickets.

According to Foreign Office sources, if all the British citizens wanted to come back to the UK, it would take about 100 flights costing around 30 million pounds. This means that no or very little compensation can be offered to those who may be in dire need of returning. Earlier, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom had announced a £70 million fund to repatriate stranded Britons all over the world.

Many British Pakistanis want to go back to the UK because they cannot access medicines from the National Health Service (NHS), but the British government has made it clear to stranded Pakistanis that no help can be provided in this regard as well as the NHS is overwhelmed with coronavirus patients and it does not have enough resources to cater to everyone in the UK at the moment, with even regular appointments being cancelled.