Repatriating travellers face uncertainty during journeys home

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As travel restrictions are being implemented worldwide to slow the spread of coronavirus, those living or working abroad are facing uncertainty returning to their countries of origin.

By March 11, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus declared a state of pandemic, defined by the organization as an epidemic that “[crosses] international boundaries and affects a large number of people.” The WHO also released a statement asking countries to put appropriate public health measures proportionate to the risk of their given nation into place, but gave no specific parameters. 

Countries have since taken divergent approaches in implementing these measures, and inconsistencies in approaches being taken to slow the spread have also emerged. 

Personal choices and government support for Canadians abroad

In a press conference on March 16, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emphasized to Canadians abroad that it was “time to come home.” 

The federal government did not state that it was mandatory to repatriate, but implemented several initiatives such as the COVID-19 Emergency Loan Program for Canadians Abroad in an effort to help Canadians looking to return home. 

Former UVic student Charis Tazumi was a Canadian abroad living in Basel, Switzerland, a mid-size border town next to France and Germany. She began work in the country last October as an au pair, originally intending to stay until August 2020. 

Tazumi worked until late March, when she decided to return to her hometown of Campbell River as travel restrictions were rapidly tightening across the globe. Her host family was understanding of her decision, but took a different approach to COVID-19 than she did.  

“They had seven people over for a party the week before I decided to leave,” Tazumi says. 

Tazumi says that the choice to return home was largely a personal decision, influenced by her desire to return where she would feel safest — with her family. 

Tazumi registered with ROCA (the Registration of Canadians Abroad) prior to leaving the country last year, and received consistent updates from the Government of Canada on travel advisories regarding COVID-19 via email. These updates have included country-specific recommendations on how to travel home to Canada. 

By that time, Tazumi had already arrived on Vancouver Island after going through international airports in Zurich, Amsterdam, and Vancouver. The total journey took about 20 hours, including the ferry ride back from Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal to the Nanaimo Horseshoe Bay Ferry terminal. 

Upon arrival into Amsterdam, Tazumi noted that roughly two-thirds of the flights on the departure board were listed as cancellations. 

She also saw airport workers at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol sectioning off seats in the waiting areas in effort to enforce the two-metre social distancing rule being implemented worldwide. 

Tazumi notes that she felt nervous throughout her journey home. 

“Some of the anxiety I experienced came from being in a place where so many travellers were passing through, and also from how I thought I’d be treated being an Asian person,” says Tazumi.

“I was [still] living in Switzerland during the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe, and had encountered increased prejudicial behaviour because of what I looked like.”

From Amsterdam, she took one of the few flights still operating as scheduled, arriving at Vancouver International Airport 10 hours later. 

At immigration, she spoke to a border agent who asked how she was physically feeling and was provided with a general information document about coronavirus. No formal health screenings took place at any of the three airports she travelled through.

Repatriation complicated by government policies and travel restrictions

American Fulbright scholar David Nascari faced similar challenges travelling back to his hometown of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. 

Nascari began his Fulbright research project at a transplant hospital in Palermo, Sicily, after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh last year. 

On March 10, Nascari received an email from the State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), a federal-level office that controls scholarship programs such as Fulbright. It stated that the State Department was asking all scholars in the program to repatriate as soon as possible. 

The email also noted that Fulbright grant benefits would be suspended and scholars would lose their Fulbright scholar status if they chose to remain in Italy. Compliance with the department’s orders meant scholarship recipients could keep their grant payments and alumni status.

Nascari chose to do the latter. 

He was then left with 48 hours to get home due to the limited logistic options he faced getting back into the U.S. 

“All the prices of tickets were skyrocketing,” he says. One-way tickets for flights from Falcone Borsellino Airport in Palermo to John F. Kennedy International Airport that typically cost $400-500 USD were now over $1 000.

Nascari decided to take a flight route costing him roughly $1 400 (approximately $1950 CAD at the time of writing). It originally involved just two transfers: one at Rome–Fiumicino Airport and one at Lisbon Portela, but the latter flight was cancelled. 

David took a last-minute transfer flight into Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport (SVO), connecting him at last to U.S. soil via Miami, Florida. As passengers from Rome disembarked, Russian health agents came onto the plane with hazmat suits and handheld infrared thermometers to check temperatures. Mandatory masks were also supplied to passengers.

In total, it took him five airports and roughly two days to get home. He notes that he witnessed a lack of consistency between international airports in enforcing quarantine recommendations throughout his travels. 

“Although I should’ve been obligated to do it, at no point did any official or anything at any point of entry at any country tell me … to quarantine or give me a document or paper,” Nascari says. 

Nascari’s experience came right before March 15, around the time the Trump administration added more resources after photographs of crowded, understaffed airports like Chicago O’Hare or Dallas– Fort Worth came to light. 

Nascari expressed concern that border patrol agents at U.S. customs had no precautionary procedures put in place nor any written or verbal information to offer Americans returning from high-risk countries such as Italy. 

Nascari says he and fellow scholars were not given any financial support until after they were asked to repatriate: any reimbursements from the Fulbright Program were made after backlash and media coverage drew attention to the original lack of funding.

Tazumi and Nascari are among thousands facing challenging travel conditions that evolve with the virus. 

As conditions further progress in pockets of the U.S. and in Canada, governments are expected to even further restrict travel and enforce physical “social distancing” in the coming weeks in effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.