British Columbia

Families, volunteers push Ottawa to repatriate Canadians still stuck in India

Some 2,400 Canadians and permanent residents have returned since India went into lockdown last month.

Some 2,400 Canadians and permanent residents have returned since India went into lockdown last month

Mohit Dhanju's wife and young daughter have been stuck in India for nearly two months following a visit to a family member who had an operation. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

With its historic markets and Golden Temple, the city of Amritsar in northwest India has long appealed to tourists and Sikh pilgrims alike.

But while it's typically viewed as a place to visit, the Punjab city has taken on a new significance for Canadians stranded in India, serving as the primary point of departure for anyone still hoping to catch a repatriation flight back to Canada.

As countries around the world struggle to strike a balance between COVID-19 containment and ensuring citizens' safe return, B.C. families say attempts to arrange evacuation flights for relatives have been challenging, with frequent lapses in communication on the part of Canadian government officials.

Mohit Dhanju, 34, planned to meet his wife, Sandeep, and two-year-old daughter, Meher, in India where they had gone to visit a family member who had an operation. But Dhanju was forced to stay home in B.C. when India barred entry to foreign visitors in early March.

Days later, the country's prime minister ordered a 'total lockdown' of the country.

The Surrey man says he tried to get his wife and daughter out before the lockdown was in place, but no options were available.

The pair have been now been gone nearly two months, with no clear end date in sight.

Mohit Dhanju says his wife and daughter are hoping to get on the next phase of Canadian repatriation flights. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

He says the government was slow to offer flights from Amritsar, initially relying on bigger transit hubs like Delhi. 

"I'm talking to [my family] every day" he said.

"Early in the morning and before going to bed. But I miss them. I want them to come back home".

Dhanju says he and Sandeep have been talking to government officials about repatriation, but no flight has been booked.

He says he is especially concerned for his daughter, whose EpiPen recently expired, putting her at risk of anaphylaxis.

"I don't know how in the [locked-down] country you will find a EpiPen, where already people are not getting their important medications," he said.

He thinks his daughter's age should make her a priority for repatriation, but for now they wait.

Sandeep Dhanju and her two-year-old daughter Meher have been stranded in Amritsar, India for nearly two months. (Submitted by Mohit Dhanju)

Medical conditions a concern

Dhanju's concerns are also shared by the Fly Amritsar Initiative, an advocacy group focused on aviation issues including "direct air connectivity of Amritsar with Canada".

In a letter to Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne, the group thanked Canada for arranging flights from Amritsar, but also pushed for more support, saying Canadian and permanent residents had contacted them concerned over the quality of medical facilities while under lockdown.

In an email, Global Affairs Canada tells CBC News it will "continue to identify and assist as many of those at the highest risk levels as quickly as possible."

But other volunteers say people are losing faith in Ottawa's approach.

Gina Takhar says people are not registering with the Registration of Canadians Abroad in India because they're having issues navigating the system. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

'There's no prioritising'

Gina Takhar created a volunteer group for Canadians, helping arrange private charter flights from Amritsar to Canada.

The group, Bring Back Canadians Home, had initially planned to organize just one flight, but Takhar says interest spread like wildfire, with more than 7,000 people saying they needed help.

Takhar says many of them had been unable to secure a spot on the government flights, or didn't know how to register with the Global Affairs Canada's Registration of Canadians Abroad in India program.

"It's a lottery ticket to get into these flights" she said.

"There's no prioritising. Sixty per cent of those people in Punjab don't know how to use a computer or have access to a computer to even get these tickets."

The group had eight charter flights arranged to repatriate citizens and permanent residents, when India's Civil Aviation Department contacted them to say their permits had been revoked.

No official explanation has been offered to the group as to what happened, but Takhar is appealing to the Canadian government to help make the charter flights happen.

"I have cried in front of government officials saying please let us help," she said.

24 flights to date, with more on the way

By Sukh Dhailwal's count, though, the government plan has been effective.

Sukh Dhaliwal says 24 flights have transported Canadians from India so far. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

The Liberal MP for Surrey-Newton says of the roughly 26,000 Canadians registered with Registration of Canadians Abroad, only 6,000 showed interest in returning to Canada.

He says so far, 24 flights have been arranged to help those people out, with more coming through Qatar Airways.

Dhanju, though, thinks the government's poor planning has left thousands stuck in Punjab.

He fears his wife and daughter will be stuck in Amritsar for the foreseeable future. 

"I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel right now," he said.

With files from Belle Puri