LONDON: Over 250 Pakistani citizens are stranded in the UK after Pakistan closed its airspace on 21 March. Many of those stranded have been unable to get refunds or alternate flights and have been forced to stay in the country despite running out of money.
Students, short term visitors and elderly people form the majority of the stranded Pakistanis who wish to travel back to Pakistan. Initially, Pakistani airspace was closed till 4 April but even now commercial flights are not being allowed to function.
Pakistan’s High Commissioner in the UK, Mohammad Nafees Zakaria wrote a letter to stranded Pakistanis in which he said: “I wish to inform you that according to the PIA (Pakistan International Airlines), special flights are being arranged to facilitate the return of stranded Pakistanis in the UK. We have passed on your information to PIA with the request to reserve your seat on the first available flights.”
In response, Major (retired) Syed Faisal who is a short term visitor to the UK and stranded, said: “The PHC London informed me that they have coordinated with PIA and all those who have shared their details like visa and passport copy with PHC will be guided for further process of booking flights. However, to date, no one has approached me regarding booking,” he said.
Faisal said that Pakistanis stranded in the UK do not know where to contact the national flag carrier for booking. He said that the PIA had removed all special flights from their website. He also said that the tickets cost an average of £800-900 per person. Faisal appealed to the government to arrange special flights on humanitarian grounds or on reduced fares.
Habib ur Rehman, a heart patient who is stuck in Stoke on Trent, said: “I am running out of my medicine, I have heart problems but the pharmacies here aren’t giving me medicines over the counter. They say they want a prescription but doctors aren’t allowing me to visit the hospital. My first flight was on 24th March which was cancelled, then I booked another one for 26th March which was also cancelled. Now I have a ticket for 16th April.” Rehman said he didn’t know whether the PIA would fly him or not.
Mohammad Noman, an elderly businessman from Karachi, said that he and his wife were diabetic and were running short of medical supplies. Noman said that he contacted the Pakistan High Commission, who took his information and that was it. He complained that the PIA did not provide any information on the situation. “Their [PIA] initial ticket was for 21st when the airspace closed,” he said.
Noman’s son, Burhan, expressed dismay at the thought of not being able to return to his country.
Another Karachi resident who works as a cloth merchant and is stuck in the UK said: “I’m a blood pressure patient. When my medicine ended, the National Health Service (NHS) gave me one week’s supply and said this was all they could provide because I’m a foreigner. I don’t know what will happen to my health if I don’t get my medicine. The Pakistani government should do everything they can to help me.”
Faisal Effendi, a law student who is stuck in London, expressed disappointment at the ‘confused’ and ‘inconsistent’ policies of the government. He said that the government had announced special flights after international ones were suspended. However, the pilots went on strike due to the coronavirus pandemic which caused further problems.
“I bought a ticket for a special flight of PIA for £765 one way London Heathrow to Islamabad but it’s delayed for the second time and I still don’t know what is the updated flight status. PIA officials & government authorities are frequently changing statements and policies.”
Bilal Khan, who works in a bank in Glasgow told The News how his mother cried every time they spoke on the phone. He said: “I have bought 3 tickets but all the flights have been cancelled. I am alone here, I have no family, no friends, I want to go home but I don’t know what’s going on,” he said, wondering why British citizens stranded in Pakistan were sent on special flights to the UK but the same was not done for stranded Pakistanis. He criticised Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Zulfi Bokhari for not living up to their promises.
While PIA is accepting bookings from 16 April, passengers remain unsure whether they will be taken back to Pakistan. A British pound costs over 200 Pakistani Rupees which makes it increasingly difficult for stranded Pakistanis to continue staying in the UK.
When approached, a PIA official commented: “There’s clarity as of now. We are selling future flights only for June onwards. Our decisions are linked with decisions made by the Government of Pakistan, Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority and National Disaster Management Authority.”
The Pakistan High Commission in the United Kingdom also clarified its stance on the issue. “Any Pakistani national in a difficult situation in the UK can contact the High Commission, the details are on the Mission’s website,” it said in a statement.