British Columbia

No way home in sight for Canadians stranded in India amid COVID-19 lockdown

Canadians stranded in India are growing increasingly desperate to return home as the South Asian country enforces a nationwide lockdown and closure of its airspace because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With no repatriation flights currently planned, people are losing hope

A man with a protective mask walks on a deserted road, amid a nationwide lockdown over highly contagious novel coronavirus on Tuesday in New Delhi. (Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

Canadians stranded in India are growing increasingly desperate to return home as the South Asian country enforces a nationwide lockdown and closure of its airspace because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 15,000 Canadian passport holders are currently registered with Global Affairs Canada as being in India, according to the federal government. The government has not specified how many of those people want to return to Canada.

As of Tuesday, the federal government had no repatriation flights scheduled to get them out.  

India has closed its airspace and imposed a 21-day lockdown, preventing people from leaving their homes, following a spike in cases of COVID-19 in recent days. Those who are stuck say the restrictions make it impossible for them to get to the airports in New Delhi and Mumbai. 

"We're frustrated, because we hear how the Canadian government is doing everything they can to get Canadians back, and I can tell you that that is not the case right now," said Ottawa resident Debbie Lavigne, who is currently in Goa.

The federal government said Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne has been in touch with the Indian government and is working to bring people home, but the details of what is being done aren't known.

The 15,000 number does not account for citizens who have not registered or who are permanent residents — it is estimated there could be many more who are trying to return.

Lavigne said Tuesday that she and her daughter have been calling the Canadian Embassy in New Delhi non-stop and sending emails to Canada's emergency watch and response centre — at sos@international.gc.ca — but have received no answers.

"We actually managed to get a live person, and they advised us to follow tweets and the news. We just need to be reassured to know that somebody is looking out for us," she said.

Canadians flock to India in the spring

Spring is a time when thousands of Canadians head to India to visit family and friends, often staying for a month at a time, most typically in the Punjab region. Many of those travelling are elderly, and families at home are concerned about their health. 

Ravi Gill, who is working tirelessly with a group of people in Surrey, B.C., to bring people home, said a lot of the older Canadians are insulin-dependent or on other medications but don't have enough supplies beyond their planned return dates.

Many of Ravi Gill's family and community members are stuck in India. He's been lobbying the government to help bring them home. (Submitted by Ravi Gill )

"They're pretty much snowbirds," Gill said. "Other people go to Arizona, Florida, but a lot of people in our community go to India. It's difficult for our government to make choices, but we're asking them to help."

Gill is trying to lobby the government to do more, but every day, he says, he's growing more frustrated. He questions why repatriation flights have been sent to other countries with far fewer Canadians stranded, but those in India have been left behind.

"There are young children in our family who are also stuck in India and are terrified at being locked into homes," he said.

"They have witnessed police using sticks and pulling people off scooters to force them back home. This is a very traumatic experience for them."

He's collecting names and information and has started this Facebook page for people seeking help. Canadians are also advised to register with Foreign Affairs.

Surrey MP's mom also stranded

Surrey-Newton Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal's 80-year-old mother is among those stranded in India. Dhaliwal said he, too, is putting pressure on Champagne, but he doesn't believe it will be easy to bring Canadians home any time soon.

"Because India has shut down the airfield, we are trying to get an access to the airfield, and also the prime minister has talked to the CEO of both airlines, Air Canada as well as WestJet."

Surrey-Newton Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal's 80-year-old mother is among those stranded in India. (James Mulleder/CBC)

Dhaliwal said those who are stuck may need to be patient and wait it out.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it clear the total country lockdown will be enforced.

"To save India, to save its every citizen, you, your family … every street, every neighbourhood is being put under lockdown. We will have to pay the economic cost of this, but [it] is the responsibility of everyone."

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.  

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that more than 15,000 Canadian passport holders are stranded in India. In fact, 15,000 is the number of Canadian passport holders who have registered with Global Affairs.
    Mar 25, 2020 7:13 AM PT

About the Author

Anita Bathe

Co-host, CBC Vancouver News at 6pm

Anita Bathe is co-host of CBC Vancouver's flagship newscast. She remains committed to working in the field, telling stories that matter and giving citizens a voice. Bathe is a multiple RTDNA award winner, a recipient of the Jack Webster Fellowship and she's won several BCAB awards for her in-depth reporting on breaking news.