Canadians trapped in Morocco by COVID-19 restrictions to be evacuated this weekend: Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today that a flight has been arranged to bring home Canadians stranded in Morocco, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the transport sector.

Tens of thousands are stranded abroad as nations move to slow spread of COVID-19

Passengers line up to board one of the few flights out of Morocco in Marrakech on Thursday. (Jessica Blough/The Associated Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today that a flight has been arranged to bring home Canadians stranded in Morocco, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the transport sector.

"We're in discussion with Canadian airlines to help Canadians stranded abroad come home," Trudeau said this morning from outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, where he remains in self-isolation after his wife tested positive for COVID-19. "We will have more details to share but the first flight will be picking up Canadians from Morocco this weekend."

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Air Canada is sending a plane Saturday that will ferry Canadians home from the North African nation to Montreal. Passengers will have to pay for this flight as it's a commercial flight — not a rescue flight chartered by the Canadian government. The cost of a ticket is $1,272 plus tax.

Travellers can apply for up to $5,000 in financial support from the Canadian government to help with COVID-19-related travel disruptions. The loan must be repaid.

Air Canada said it has a wide body aircraft, with 450 seats, leaving Saturday from Casablanca. The Foreign Affairs Department is co-ordinating arrangements for Canadians in Morocco wishing to return home. The flight is scheduled to depart at 6:50 p.m. local time.

The tickets are reserved for Canadian citizens and permanent residents. Reservations will be accepted on Air Canada's website.

"We understand it's a challenging time for all Canadians who are still abroad and anxious to come back home. Our teams are working around the clock with the Canadian Government and offering our global reach to do everything we can to repatriate as many Canadians as possible, recognizing that we will not be able to assist all," said Calin Rovinescu, president and CEO of Air Canada.

At least one of the stranded Canadians won't be on that flight. Rakan Aloran, a Windsor, Ont., man, was hoping to leave Morocco, but he's tested positive for COVID-19 and is now in quarantine in Tangier.

Speaking to CBC Windsor, Aloran said he's glad he was tested because he's asymptomatic, and he could have unknowingly spread the virus to others at the airport.

"That's the scary part. Had I not gone out of my way to be tested and instead just went on to Casablanca airport with the masses … what would happen?" Aloran said.

"I would be [COVID-19] positive, and I would be on a plane. It's really scary stuff that these symptoms are not strong and you can't tell."

Transport Minister Marc Garneau has instructed all airlines to deny permission to board to anyone — including Canadian citizens — displaying COVID-19 symptoms, such as a fever, cough or other respiratory issues. Those travellers will be asked to seek medical attention in the countries where they are.

A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said the department has heard from tens of thousands of Canadians looking to get home after the federal government announced a week ago that all travellers abroad should return to Canada and self-isolate for 14 days.

The minister's office said the government is particularly concerned about travellers in Morocco and Peru, two destinations where a large number of Canadians are stranded. Peru is under martial law and has closed its borders to everyone looking to get in or out. CBC News has heard from dozens of Canadians stuck there who have no way to get home.

Canadians now outside Canada and needing help to return home can contact the nearest Government of Canada office or Global Affairs Canada's 24/7 Emergency Watch and Response Centre in Ottawa at +1 613-996-8885 (collect calls are accepted where available), or they can email sos@international.gc.ca.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said stranded travellers should register with the government's Canadians Abroad program so Foreign Affairs knows just how many people are overseas and how to reach them if more flights become available.

"We are working urgently to find a way to help those people come home," Freeland told reporters Friday. "It's a very complex situation. We understand how frightening it is for people. And we're working to get through it."

Sunwing, a leisure airline that typically serves holiday destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean, has already repatriated 44,000 Canadians stuck overseas and has even brought back non-Sunwing passengers for free.

"We understand a lot of Canadians are still stranded outside the country and struggling to get home," said Stephen Hunter, CEO of Sunwing Travel Group.

"That's why we want to open up any extra capacity we have. It's the Canadian thing to do."

Sunwing said it expects to have all of its customers back in Canada by March 23, at which time all of its flights will be temporarily suspended.


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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