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British Pakistanis angry about coronavirus repatriation effort

Thousands of British Pakistanis found themselves stuck in Pakistan as the coronavirus pandemic spread. They are disillusioned by their government's attempt to get them home to Britain, which some see as racist.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth office has come under heavy criticism from British Pakistanis for what they say was their effective abandonment in Pakistan during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Thousands of British Pakistanis found themselves stuck in the country when on March 21, Pakistan shut its airspace to commercial flights due to the virus. On March 23, Britain's Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, called for all British citizens to return with immediate effect. 

"Where commercial routes don't exist, our staff are working round the clock to give advice and support to UK nationals," Raab said. 

The British government launched repatriation flights to a number of countries including Peru, India and Nepal. Around 75 million pounds (€85.6 million; $92.8 million) were earmarked for this operation, but Pakistan was not included in the charter scheme.

This left stranded citizens at the mercy of Pakistan's state airline, PIA, which repeatedly cancelled flights and refused to refund customers.

Leeds-based writer Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan launched her own campaign while stuck in Pakistan, after growing frustrated with the official handling. She set up an email address to send out automated information, gathered details of vulnerable people and encouraged citizens to contact their local member of parliament.

Over 75 lawmakers wrote to Dominic Raab demanding action on the issue, led by shadow minister Emily Thornberry. "We are concerned that the High Commission in Pakistan [which provides services to British nationals in Pakistan] are not adopting examples of best practice that we have seen from other UK embassies around the world," Thornberry's letter said, stressing that people were running out of money and struggling to access necessary medication.

One such person was Iqbal Hussain from West Yorkshire who underwent surgery for cancer last year, uses an ileostomy bag and requires a dozen different medications. "I called the British consulate almost every day, with no joy, only false promises," he said. He said that he ended up having to wash and reuse his ileostomy bags, which he described as degrading. He paid 1,000 pounds for a flight back to Britain on April 18.

Manzoor-Khan said that his experience indicated that the High Commission in Pakistan was not doing the groundwork necessary. "When I eventually got through to them, the British High Commission asked me to send them my list of high-risk people, which was alarming — treating me as an unpaid intern rather than having any systematic way of getting this information themselves," she said. 

Charter flights after prolonged campaign

Amna Saleem, a writer and comedian from Scotland, had been vocal in her efforts to get her parents repatriated, including appearing on the BBC and writing several articles. Her parents recently returned, but she said the experience took a toll on their mental health, "My dad's health suffered and that really scared us." She said that the hardest moment for her was a conversation during which her normally stoic father became emotional and asked if he would have been home earlier if his skin was white.

After a month of campaigning by Manzoor-Khan and lawmakers, including one, Afzal Khan, who was in contact with her daily, charter flights were finally put on by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. 

In a statement provided to DW, the British High Commissioner to Pakistan, Christian Turner, said: "We have been helping British travellers in Pakistan return home to the UK since 21 March. While this is an unprecedented situation we continue working hard to help more people get home over the next week." He added that 17,000 people had been repatriated so far with more expected by early May. 

A Pakistan International Airlines plane on a tarmac

Initially British Pakistanis were at the mercy of Pakistan's flag carrier, PIA, to get home

The British High Commission said that it had also provided emergency loans for those unable to afford the ticket price and would continue to support British Pakistanis who have chosen to remain in Pakistan. 

Disillusioned citizens have been left questioning whether prejudice played a part in their experience. A damning report on the Windrush scandal released in March stopped short of saying that the Home Office, Britian's interior ministry, was institutionally racist, and this, coupled with a government with hostile immigration policies, has compounded such sentiments.

"This incident has solidified the knowledge I had that citizenship in this country is conditional and precarious for all people of color," Manzoor-Khan said. 

Saleem said she acknowledged that a pandemic is an unusual situation for any government to deal with, but she did feel that institutional racism played a part in the British government's response. "The British government not only failed my parents but all of us with their handling of the situation."

Referring to minority frontline workers in the NHS who are dying disproportionately during the pandemic, Saleem said: "Britain has spent years trying to undermine our very presence yet has no problem using us in its time of need."

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