Butterfly Effect: Homeward Bound
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
A valid passport and a ticket are no longer enough to get back home.
Charu Sudan Kasturi
OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has built a reputation as a leader who enjoys loyal support among the country’s diaspora. He addresses them in raucous public rallies on foreign visits and sends sleuths and ships to pluck them from trouble spots like Yemen and Iraq. It’s a fan base he leverages with other world leaders keen on Indian-origin support in their countries, from U.S. President Donald Trump to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
But in the past couple of weeks, Modi has found himself in unfamiliar territory — facing brickbats from Indians abroad who are unable to return because of his government’s refusal to let them in during a nationwide lockdown. On Twitter, Indians in Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iran, and the United States and Britain have pleaded with Modi’s government to get them back home. It hasn’t worked.
Yet Modi’s unresponsiveness is only one example of how the chaotic, uncoordinated global response to the coronavirus pandemic is creating a set of victims who have largely been ignored: hundreds of thousands of people from different nations stranded in foreign countries. It’s sparking diplomatic tensions and an avoidable humanitarian crisis, and could leave scars on travelers and overseas workers for years to come.
An estimated 65,000 British nationals — many of them low-budget tourists — are stuck in other countries, as are an additional 100,000 civilians from other European nations. More than 3,600 South Africans abroad are eager to return, the country’s international relations and cooperation minister, Naledi Pandor, said last week. China has closed a key border crossing with Russia after virus-infected citizens returned home, kick-starting a fresh rise in cases following several weeks when Beijing reported only a few new patients.
Some of those stuck in other countries have the means to support themselves where they are, but many — especially migrant workers from Africa, South Asia and the Philippines living in the Middle East, Singapore and Taiwan — do not. Several among them have lost jobs amid the economic crisis sparked by the virus and the crash in oil prices, leaving them even more vulnerable. The Indian government, for instance, has confirmed that more than 3,300 of the country’s citizens trapped abroad have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 25 have died, alone and separated from their families.
To be clear, travel restrictions are necessary to contain the spread of the virus that has now claimed more than 184,000 lives, including 46,000 in the U.S. They’re also a key part of the political debate playing out in the U.S. over Trump’s handling of the pandemic. The president insists the restrictions he imposed on travel from China in February helped save America from what could have been an even worse scenario. This week, he fanned the flames by signing an order to temporarily shut down all legal — even though it wouldn’t be much of a change from current policy.
But what was also needed was a thought-out, planned global approach to the travel curbs, led by the United Nations or the G-20. That could have outlined broad parameters and responsibilities for all countries to observe — on whether and when to repatriate civilians, and on how to care for people from other nations while they wait to return home.
Instead, just as nations are scrambling to outbid one another to secure masks, we’re also witnessing a haphazard and confused response to the plight of those stranded on foreign soil.
The U.S., Germany, Australia and a few other nations have chartered dozens of planes to fly their citizens back from different parts of the world. Others like South Africa have said they’re trying to follow suit but are struggling to convince countries like Thailand that have so far refused to let any international flights take off from their airports. In February, the U.S. flew back its citizens from the virus-infested Diamond Princess cruise ship that was docked off the coast of Japan.
Some countries like the UAE — where migrants constitute 80 percent of the population and 90 percent of the workforce — have been pressuring other nations to take back their citizens, even threatening them with diplomatic consequences. At the other end of the spectrum, India and Pakistan are among the countries that are closing their doors on their own nationals abroad, worried about allowing in any more potential carriers of the virus.
The net result of this hodgepodge is that those at the bottom of the ladder have been left to fend for themselves in the middle of a global health scare, at times battling racism. In Kuwait, a popular actress earlier this month called for migrants who test positive to be “thrown into the desert.” Qatar has locked up thousands of migrant workers in a neighborhood that it sealed off after finding hundreds of COVID-19-positive cases there. Singapore is witnessing a surge in cases among migrant workers who live in packed dormitories. These workers are not wanted in the countries they work in — at least at the moment — but they can’t return home either.
For tourists and other travelers, this global mismanagement also undermines the fundamental notion that with a valid passport and a ticket, you can return home if you wish to. The near-universal rules of foreign travel have broken. It’s each country to itself.
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- Charu Sudan Kasturi Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi