Left To Their Fate: Pakistani Students Are Stranded In Turkey Amidst COVID-19
The butterfly effect caused with the first case of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, on 17th November, 2019 has found the world in a testing storm of economic, political, and social struggle. In these unique circumstances all institutions – whether related to civil management, education, industry, or politics – are battling to hold their structures. Indeed, it is an individual’s duty to understand the novelty and sensitivity of the situation and not lose their selves to panic. However, it is the same novelty that has left everyone susceptible to psychological tensions, hopelessness, and a general fear that buds from the complete change that has come to their lives.
Now whilst almost each one of us understands that some people are facing worse scenarios than our own selves, it is also essential to recognize the fact that everyone is facing their own severity of the situation. Additionally, it is never healthy to compare situations that people are in, for several parties are often engaged in a combined predicament. This leads us to the question of the Pakistani reaction to repatriating students and its necessity.
Earlier in this pandemic, Pakistan refused to repatriate students that were present in the Covid-19-stricken Wuhan as a show of ‘solidarity’ to the Chinese – at the cost of the psychological and general well-being of the students as well as their families awaiting their arrival in Pakistan. It was only after the students consistently begged the country to consider them and struggled to let their voices be heard that the Pakistani government finally repatriated them. Many people, both in our media, nation, and the government, misinterpret this plea as panic, selfishness and a means to communicate a lack of care from the foreign government. Though it might create the impression of panic, one needs to realize that the nature of the disease and the fact that families are filled with worry back in their homes, for their children’s health. In no way does it target the foreign nation hosting the student – as is the general misconception among the officials that respond to the students’ pleas.
Among the students desiring repatriation are those stuck in Turkey amidst this pandemic. Unlike other governments that advised students to return to their countries immediately with news of the pandemic, like the Dutch and Singaporean ones, Pakistan refused to send out such a notice. Furthermore, as the situation continued to worsen in Turkey and accommodations were changed, due to the cleaner private dorms being turned into quarantine facilities for repatriated citizens and Turkish International students, Pakistani students also began to press the country and embassy to take them back. In no way did we mention that the accommodations were sub-standard. Instead we continue to make do — despite observing many fellow-students of other nationalities fleeing from the dorms to find shelter in apartments. Merely expressing the concern that these new accommodations did not live up to prior standards, we voiced our desire to go back.
Turkey has definitely provided and cared for Pakistani International Students to the best of its ability and has not left us alone. However, there is always a certain preference towards one’s own citizens, which can be seen in the change of the dormitories that was introduced after Turkey repatriated 40,000 citizens, including international students, to provide them quality quarantine facilities. Regardless, they are providing us shelter, food, and the promised stipend (as YTB students) despite the economic problems caused by the pandemic. The student community here is extremely thankful towards the Turkish authorities for their help and assistance. Indeed we have no complaints from them. Our complaint lies with our own government back home.
Our problem began with the recent Turkish Airlines flight, TK4943, which was meant to repatriate Turkish citizens from Pakistan while delivering medical supplies to Pakistan – N95 masks, Covid-19 testing kits, etc. Initially, this flight sold tickets to Pakistani nationals ensuring their return to their country. I learnt of this flight through a Pakistani friend in Ankara and, after consulting with the other students in my dorm, was deciding whether to purchase the ticket. In our attempt to ensure that the flight might take us, we contacted the embassy for the first time regarding the matter on Friday, the 17th of April. However, the Pakistani Embassy in Ankara was yet unsure of whether Pakistan had provided authorization to the Turkish flight and allowed them to bring citizens.
Owing to the lack of decisiveness on both our part and the embassy’s, as well as due to the Turkish Airlines’ simultaneous assertion that the flight will leave, I along with 7 other fellow students decided to purchase the flight hoping that the lack of authorization was just a news bound to change when the government learn that we have purchased the tickets. However, the following 2 days were a huge mess. After purchasing the ticket, we were continuously trying to contact the relevant authorities and attempting to somehow confirm the status of the flight. Continuously dialing Turkish Airlines and the embassy, we had little rest. Using known contacts, we tried to ask people of the Presidential advisory committee and authorities in the Pakistani Overseas Foundation to confirm the status of the flight. It was incredibly pleasing to see them answer our questions and consider our situation. However, they consistently responded that Pakistan had not provided authorization to the flight owing to a lack of health facilities, quarantine areas, and testing kits – ironically, that too for a flight that was later confirmed to take assorted medical provisions. Hence, on Sunday, 19 April 2020, after confirming again from Turkish Airlines in the morning that the flight was leaving, we got an email later that night stating that it had been rescheduled.
This obviously came to the woe of both the students and families back home that had paid approximately 3,640 TL for our flight. In this scenario, we blame neither the Turkish government nor Turkish Airlines for cancelling the flight. Quite on the contrary, it is the Pakistani Government and its refusal to take back its citizens that came to our surprise. Even with the promise of sending 20 repatriation flights starting April 20th, they refused to take us back on account of a lack of medical facilities. Leaving aside the fact that the plane was already taking medical equipment, they had previously promised to repatriate more than 6,000 citizens in the coming week.
In this scenario, denying us a flight that had promised to leave Turkey for Pakistan, and which they were aware had sold tickets on grounds of repatriation, came to our shock. Neither the Pakistani authorities’ own resources nor their own money would have been spent with the flight bringing us back. Instead, they would merely have to house us for 2 days as per their quarantine procedures. The fuel saved could have been spent on another repatriation flight, to help people that needed it. So instead of struggling to ensure our arrival back to Pakistan when they could have, they denied us the chance and are currently sending another flight to repatriate only people under a criterion that refuses to include students.
Upon calling the embassy another time, I was asked to be patient and told that other countries did not include students in their immediate repatriation attempt as well. By contrast, Malaysia has recently sent a flight evacuating its students. Additionally, Thailand, India, Israel, and Turkey have all brought back their students to the best of their ability. With the situation as it has become in Turkey – increasing Covid-19 cases and deaths – it is only right for those here to worry about their well-being and demand support from their government. We understand that other people are in worse situations, but every country has citizens in trouble and is trying to account for all of them. Countries like Afghanistan, despite the conditions of their own economy, are trying to assist their nationals in their safe return and are not limiting their services to certain categories of people. We merely desire for our government to consider us as much of a priority as others.