DHAKA: Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Dhaka will from Sunday begin renewing visas for thousands of Bangladeshi workers stranded in their home country due to the coronavirus pandemic, following the Kingdom’s decision to extend the deadline by 24 days, officials told Arab News.
Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia’s national carriers, Biman and Saudia, will operate 16 flights to facilitate the process, with the flight frequency increasing, to get the stranded migrant workers back to the Kingdom.
According to government data, nearly 50,000 Bangladeshi workers returned from Saudi Arabia between last December and this March.
A majority were unable to return to work due to the coronavirus outbreak, which led to a lockdown in both countries and the suspension of flights.
“Not all the stranded migrants require a visa extension,” Dr. Mohammad Javed Patwary, Bangladesh’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said on Saturday. “Those who came earlier at the outset of the pandemic and between Dec. 2019 to March 2020 will require it.”
Saudi Arabia said it was extending the visa renewal deadline until Oct. 14, based on a request by Dhaka.
Saudia began operating two passenger and two chartered flights from Sept. 23, while Biman will start flying workers back to the Kingdom from Oct. 1.
“Initially, Biman was to operate four flights,” Mofidur Rahman, chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB), said. “But now, seeing the huge pressure of the stranded migrants, we are open and they can operate as many flights as they want.”
He added that the CAAB was yet to receive permission for passenger flights from Saudi Arabia but hoped to get it as soon as possible.
“I have contacted the concerned Saudi officials regarding the passenger flight permission for Biman and expecting to get it shortly when the offices resume,” Patwary told Arab News.
However the measures have failed to allay the fears of migrant workers who want better coordination among airlines and health departments for Saudi-bound passengers.
“We need to collect the COVID-19 test reports within 48 hours of the flight,” 27-year-old Arman Hossain told Arab News. “But currently we are receiving tickets only a few hours before the flight, which puts us in extreme difficulties to manage the COVID-19 test reports.”
Health officials in Dhaka urged airline authorities to issue the tickets in advance so that passengers could collect the test results on time.
“Sometimes passengers are coming to our center only 10 to 12 hours before a flight as they receive the tickets at the last moment,” Dr. Moinul Ahsan, civil surgeon and the person in charge of all government hospitals in Dhaka, told Arab News. “Practically, we need at least 24 hours to process a COVID-19 sample and generate the report.”
As of Friday, Dhaka’s coronavirus sample collection center had provided 1,525 test results.
“On Saturday, we have thus far collected 797 samples and the migrants are still coming to provide samples,” Ahsan said. “We are working round the clock, and none missed the flight due to not having the test report in hand.”
Shariful Hasan, from the Bangladeshi NGO Brac, suggested authorities provide accommodation for passengers flying to Saudi Arabia.
“Most of the passengers are coming from out of the capital, and they don’t have any residence in the city,” he said. “Since the passengers need to collect the COVID-19 test reports within 48 hours of their travel, the government should provide some accommodation facilities for them to ease the process. We hope all stranded migrants will be able to fly by Oct. 14.”
According to data from Bangladesh’s Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training, Saudi Arabia is the single largest source of foreign remittances, with more than $4 billion sent by nearly 2.2 million workers last year.