Yemenis stranded in India call to be repatriated as fear of coronavirus infection rises 

In Yemen, scores of COVID-19 cases have been recorded across the country, but the UN warns that the virus is spreading largely undetected. (File/AFP)
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Updated 28 May 2020

Yemenis stranded in India call to be repatriated as fear of coronavirus infection rises 

  • Yemeni nationals who traveled to India for medical treatment call on international humanitarian organizations to defend their right to return to Yemen
  • Many say they are running out of cash to pay for hotels and food and drink , as they wait to be returned home

Far from home, no money for food or accommodation and in fear of contracting COVID-19 — this is the situation of thousands of Yemeni nationals stranded in India due to the pandemic. 

“I came to India to get an operation on my eye. We are staying in a hotel but we can’t pay for the hotel anymore. And now I just want to return to Yemen,” six-year-old Mohammed Abdulnoor Radman said.

The young boy had been taken to the Mehta International Eye Institute in Mumbai for an examination of his right eye that was found to have corneal perforation on March 3. More than two months later — like thousands of others — he is still in India, unable to return home.

Hussam Galeel is in a similar position. He travelled to India in late February for his little brother’s thyroid operation. They had booked tickets back to Yemen on March 20, but when Yemen suspended international flights on March 18 in response to the coronavirus outbreak Galeel and his brother were stranded in India.

“Who is going to support us financially here?” Galeel asked. “There are many others here like us, and their situation is even worse than ours,” he said.

Galeel was referring to the thousands of Yemeni nationals who had travelled to India for medical reasons but were now unable to pay for hotels and daily expenditure such as food and drink.

Citizens from Yemen – which has had its infrastructure weakened by the civil war – mainly travel to India for medical reasons. Figures from India’s Bureau of Immigration show that Yemen is a major source of the country’s medical tourists. In 2017, 11,903 Yemeni nationals travelled to India for medical treatment.

The war in Yemen, which erupted in 2015 between the Iranian-allied Houthi militia and the Saudi-backed internationally recognized government, has killed and wounded thousands of soldiers and civilians. It has also devastated the health system, so that doctors in Yemen recommend advanced treatment abroad for the injured.




A Yemeni national who is stranded in India holds a poster that reads in Arabic "we want to return to our homeland," on May 9, 2020.  

A Yemeni doctor sent to India by the government to oversee the medical treatment of 90 wounded people told Arab News – under the condition of anonymity – that the situation of Yemeni citizens in India was devastating.

“We have a patient who is suffering from depression after finishing his medical treatment. He is not in his right mind at the moment and might run away again from the hotel and get caught by police, who would beat him and arrest him,” the doctor said, explaining that he and his team would then have to bail the patient out of jail.

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government put the country under lockdown on March 25, several videos surfaced on social media showing police brutality inflicted on those who violated the curfew. Footage showed officers using what appeared to be as canes to beat offenders.

 

The Yemeni doctor, who said he himself was suffering from depression due to the current situation, said he knew of Yemeni citizens who were only able to afford one meal a day as their budgets were running low.

“People came to India with a budget sufficient for their stay; they didn’t plan for a pandemic keeping them away from their homes for this long,” he said, adding that many feared getting infected.

Since the virus was first identified in Wuhan, in China, at the start of this year, 4.5 million people have been infected in the world, and more than 300,000 have died. The rapid spread of the virus led governments worldwide to stop international flights, close their borders and impose nationwide lockdowns.

The Yemeni embassy in New Delhi had done little to help its nationals stranded in India since the start of the lockdown, the doctor said. He explained that he had seen a list sent to the embassy of 1,600 names of Yemeni nationals that needed to return home, but believed that the official number of stranded citizens far exceeded 2,000.

Yemen’s ambassador to India, Abdulmalik Abdullah Al-Eryani, did not respond to Arab News for a comment.




A Yemeni national holds a poster that says in Arabic "stranded Yemeni" on May 9, 2020. 

Fahd Al-Maqtari, a Yemeni expat who has been living in India for the past 18 years, said that for the past two months he and other Yemeni expats had been receiving dozens of messages from stranded Yemenis asking for help.

According to Al-Maqtari, there are more than 1,800 sick and wounded patients and more than 2,400 students stranded across India. 

“It’s not easy for people from Yemen to come here for medical treatment. They usually sell something valuable like land or their cars, even their wives’ gold, to be able to afford to come here to get treated for one month or two. They don’t have enough to stay longer,” Al-Maqtari said, explaining how some are relying on food donations from locals.

Recovering patients were particularly vulnerable, Al-Maqtari explained, as they were unable to seek medical assistance during the lockdown and were often turned away from hospitals that were only accepting COVID-19 patients.

Al-Maqtari explained that he had been in touch with Yemeni diplomats working in the embassy, including the ambassador, to get help for those who were vulnerable, but had been ignored.

The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that they were not aware of the situation of Yemeni nationals stranded in India. However, the organization released a statement to Arab News that called on “consular support” for stranded nationals and help for migrants in response to the COVID crisis.

“Consular support and return assistance are a vital lifeline for many people who find themselves in difficult conditions and want to return home and re-establish themselves,” the statement said.

“(The IOM) calls on countries to address the particular needs and vulnerabilities of migrants, regardless of their legal status, in the spirit of Universal Health Coverage. The fight against COVID-19 cannot be won unless the response plans in all countries include migrants, especially those marginalized or in situations of vulnerability,” the statement added.

“Being stranded here is already a big problem for us, but it will get worse if we get infected with the coronavirus,” an older Yemeni man said.




Yemeni nationals stranded in India calling on international humanitarian organizations to defend their rights to return to Yemen.

Another man called on the government to return them back to Yemen. “If we are required to be quarantined, we are happy to comply and do so, even if it is in the middle of the Yemeni desert,” he said.

In Yemen, scores of COVID-19 cases have been recorded across the country, but the UN warns that the virus is spreading largely undetected. Hundreds of people in the interim capital Aden have died in the past week with symptoms of what appears to be the coronavirus, local health officials said.

The officials fear the situation is only going to get worse as Yemen has little capacity to treat those suspected of having the virus.

However, for those stranded in India, facing fears of coronavirus at home is better than facing the threat abroad.

“We ask President Hadi — whom the Yemeni people voted for — and the internationally recognized government to look after Yemeni nationals no matter where they are,” said a man who had been stranded in India for more than two months. “We just ask them to repatriate us, like other leaders who returned their citizens home from abroad.”


Lebanon family restless as it awaits missing ‘heroes’

Updated 11 August 2020

Lebanon family restless as it awaits missing ‘heroes’

  • Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast
  • The Hittis’ hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors

QARTABA, Lebanon: Three firefighters. One Lebanese family. The same restless wait. Rita Hitti has not slept a wink since the Beirut port blast, when her firefighting son, nephew and son-in-law went missing.
“In one piece or several, we want our sons back,” she told AFP from the Hitti family’s home in the mountain town of Qartaba, north of Beirut.
“We have been waiting for the remains for six days,” she added, dark circles under her eyes.
Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast that killed 160 people and wounded at least 6,000 others across town.
They were among the first rescuers at the scene. They have not been heard of since.
Near the entrance to their Qartaba home, the three men are praised as “heroes” in a huge banner unfurled over a wall.
The double exposure shot shows them in the foreground dressed sharply in suits.
In the background, the blast’s now-infamous pink plume rises above their heads as they try to douse a fire.
An eerie calm filled the stone-arched living room, where dozens of relatives and neighbors gathered around Rita, the mother of Najib Hitti.
The women were mum, the men whispered between themselves, the young shuffled in and out of the room, quietly.
Karlen, Rita’s daughter, looked among the most sombre, with her husband Charbel Karam, brother Najib and cousin Charbel all missing.
Sitting next to her mother on the couch, she fought back tears and did not say a single word.
The Hittis’ hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors.
The health ministry has said the number of missing stands at less than 20, while the army announced it had lifted five corpses from beneath the rubble.
A large blaze was still ripping through the blast site when the Hittis and other relatives of port employees dashed to the disaster zone to check on their loved ones.
But they were stopped by security forces.
“I told them I would know my boys from their smell,” Rita said she told an officer who barred her from the site.
“Let me enter to search for them and when I whiff their smell I will know where they are,” the mother said she pleaded.
Ever since, her hopes have gradually dwindled, but her anger is boiling.
Lebanese authorities have pledged a swift investigation but the exact cause of the blast remains unclear.
Authorities say it was triggered by a fire of unknown origin that broke out in a port warehouse where a huge pile of highly volatile ammonium nitrate fertilizer had been left unsecured for years.
Whatever the cause of the fire was, the popular consensus is that the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of officials in charge of the port as well those who have ruled Lebanon country for decades.
“We gave them heroes and they returned them to us as ‘martyrs’,” Rita said, scoffing at the label officials have used to brand blast casualties.
“What martyrs? What were they protecting? The noxious things (authorities) were hiding in the port?” she asked rhetorically.
“They are martyrs of treachery.”
George, father of Charbel Hitti, also rushed to the blast site to look for his son and relatives after the explosion.
“I started to scream their names: Najib, Charbel... I was like a mad man,” he told AFP.
“We waited until 6 in the morning the next day for clues to what happened,” he said.
“In the end, I started crying.”
He did manage, however, to get one piece of information from a port security official close to the family who was at the scene of the blaze when the firefighting team first arrived on August 4.
The security official had told him that the firefighters were trying to break open the door to the ammonium nitrate warehouse because they could not find the keys before the explosion ripped the whole place apart.
A week has since passed and George said hopes of finding the three men alive have faded.
Assuming they are dead, George said he now wants one thing: “We just want DNA test results that are compatible with those of Charbel, Najib and Charbel,” he said.
“Imagine. This is everything we now wish for.”