Worldwide travel restrictions are accompanied by various national strategies aimed at limiting the movement of people to prevent transmission of COVID-19.
One of the global strategies has been to shutdown major port of entries, such as airports and border posts. This has left many travelling South Africans stranded in foreign countries and who are now unable to return home to their families.
This is creating panic and uncertainty for travellers who cannot afford to book further accommodation or carry further living expenses in those countries.
Following a Pretoria press briefing on 31 March 2020, the International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor said that the Department empathises with their plight and are doing whatever is within their means to assist them to be safe and to repatriate them back to South Africa.
The Minister confirmed that, of the total 1 471 stranded citizens, 723 are students, 204 are workers, 224 are tourists and 320 have not disclosed their status.
“I cannot say that these numbers are 100 percent accurate as it is based on people who have approached us for assistance through our missions and consular services. There may be more people in need of assistance that we do not know about yet,” says Pandor.
Government’s approach to assist those stranded abroad
Many South Africans are experiencing difficulties in accessing documents and services in South Africa that enable them to extend their visa in the host country.
This includes extension of travel insurance and other documents as may be required by the local authorities per the visa concessions made available during this lockdown period.
Most South African missions have closed following the 21day lockdown announced by President Ramaphosa and officials have been working remotely to assist the repatriation process for stranded South Africans.
The Minister has moved to assure family members of those stranded abroad by saying that “our missions, where possible, will continue to render consular services, including negotiating with the governments where there are lockdowns, in order to facilitate the movement of stranded South Africans.”
The Department will prioritise those who were most distressed – passengers stranded at airports, or running out of accommodation options, as well as the elderly and the sick. This include evacuation flights, possibly using South African Airways aircraft.
For those who already purchased return air tickets to South Africa, Pandor said they should try to return back home at their own cost, by arranging with airlines they bought ticket from.
She appealed to travel agents and airlines to accommodate and rebook these passengers on different dates as the airlines would now be allowed to fly to South Africa to bring back South Africans.
For the rest of the South Africans who may not be stranded or distressed, they were advised to remain put to reduce movement until the end of the lockdown.
Can foreign authorities abroad assist stranded South Africans?
Our Missions were also tasked to also determine whether the authorities from host countries can offer any assistance to stranded South Africans due to the COVID-19 pandemic, for example by issuing extension of visas.
President Ramaphosa has advised that he is working on the matter together with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation and various missions abroad.
The Consular Services Unit at DIRCO Head Office is monitoring calls of stranded South Africans daily to ensure that they are informed all the time and will continue to be in touch with all South Africans until they are comfortably reunited with their families.
Read more about COVID-19
To make it easier for people who are unable to make contact with the Missions abroad, the Department has established a 24-hour Command Centre.
All South Africans re-entering the country will be subject to screening and quarantining for a 14-day period.
AUTHOR: Lerato Mahupela, Immigration Specialist at Xpatweb