The people that Covid-19 has cut off from home www.theguardian.com
When her studies in Budapest finished this spring, Puje was meant to return home to Mongolia, where she had a job waiting for her in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. But in mid-March, Mongolia sealed its borders completely, even to its own citizens, and it has not yet reopened them. Now, the 26-year-old Puje is one of thousands of Mongolians stranded in Europe.
Covid-19 has caused havoc with the travel plans of millions across the world, ruining holidays and testing long-distance relationships. But for many people who are still unable to get back to their home countries, such problems seem trivial by comparison.
Chinese students, Mongolian tourists, Palestinians from Gaza and many others have all found themselves unable to return home, often meaning separation from close family, economic hardship and uncertainty about the future.
Mongolians are some of the hardest hit. The only way home is via a government evacuation flight, but these only run once a month from Frankfurt and Istanbul. The tickets are expensive, and passengers must also pay for a mandatory 21-day stay in a government quarantine facility on arrival.
Even for those who have the money, demand outstrips supply. Thousands apply for seats on each plane, and most are rejected, amid rumours that those with government connections are given priority. The Mongolian foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
“Imagine how long 2,500 Mongolians in Europe will have to wait with only two flights per month,” said Oyunaa Luvsan, a Mongolian currently stuck in the city of Pécs, Hungary, who created a Facebook group for Mongolians stranded in Europe to share their frustrations. Some are students who have run out of money, others were tourists on a brief trip that has been extended for months after their return flights in March were cancelled.
Chinese students overseas have also been struggling to get home to China, the first country to introduce strict travel restrictions after the outbreak in Wuhan. Although there are now flights available, ticket prices have risen several fold, only to be cancelled at the last minute on occasion, prompting frustration and anger.
Parents of students stuck abroad penned an open letter to Chinese diplomats asking for help, and some Chinese internet users have questioned the image the country has projected of coming to the rescue of its people. “Isn’t China’s propaganda that it can bring its citizens back?” one commentator wrote on the social media platform Weibo.
The Chinese embassy in the US said that between 11 April and 5 June about 7,000 students had been brought back on chartered flights. In a statement this week, the embassy said it would continue to provide such flights.
For Palestinians living in Gaza, who were already suffering from a punishing Israeli-Egyptian blockade, the pandemic has greatly compounded a dire situation in which many are trapped inside and out. Gisha, an Israeli rights group, said entries and exits into Gaza are down by roughly 98% of what they were in February, with only 218 Palestinians exiting the enclave in June.
One 32-year-old woman who left Gaza in April to receive medical treatment for a cancerous tumour in her head has been separated from her four children ever since, including her nine-month-old baby.
Twice she attempted to return to Gaza from the West Bank city of Ramallah, but was refused at Israeli checkpoints, she said, blaming a recent breakdown in coordination between Palestinian and Israeli authorities.
“I talk to my children daily by phone, and we see each other on video calls,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to damage her prospects of returning. “I don’t love Gaza. But I love to be with my husband and children. I want to be back,” she added.
Mongolia and Gaza are extreme cases, but there are also a number of countries which have allowed citizens to return but not long-term foreign residents. The most notable of these is the UAE, where Emirati citizens make up just 12% of the population. Many long-term foreign residents were shocked to find they were treated as outsiders and were unable to return when the pandemic began.
From a Facebook group devoted to those still trying to return, it is clear that there are still thousands of residents who have not been able to make it back, even as the UAE has begun letting in tourists. Some have relatives in the UAE, or were awaiting scheduled medical treatment there.
“It has dramatically affected how people feel about living here … It has become very clear that expats don’t matter and you will never have any rights here,” said a British woman who has lived in Dubai for 20 years, and owns a house and a business there. She was unable to return until recently even though her husband was there, and said many of her friends were making plans to leave Dubai after their recent experiences.
As the prospects of scoring a seat on an evacuation flight appear slim some Mongolians stranded in Europe have been mulling ever more creative options. One group in Hungary investigated chartering a plane, but were told Mongolian authorities would not allow it to land. The latest plan under consideration is to travel overland for several days through Russia and camp out near the Mongolian border, hoping to be let in.
Puje said she was desperate to leave. She has lost her part-time waitressing job in Budapest, and been attacked on the metro due to her Asian appearance, when a woman assaulted her with an umbrella and accused her of being a spreader of coronavirus.
“My university stipend is over, it’s hard to find a job here, my visa is about to expire and I have nowhere to live. I just want to go home,” she said.