Government has helped bring home 20,000 Canadians — but many are still stranded abroad by the pandemic

The federal government has helped to bring back about 20,000 Canadians who were stranded around the world due to pandemic travel restrictions — but many Canadians abroad are still pleading for help to get home.

Massive operation to coordinate air, ground transportation requires diplomacy and complex logistics

This Air Canada plane picked up 400 Canadians in Lima, Peru on Saturday April 4 for a flight back to Toronto's Pearson International Aiport. (Supplied Michael Melymick )

The federal government has helped to bring back about 20,000 Canadians who were stranded around the world due to pandemic travel restrictions — but many Canadians abroad are still pleading for help to get home.

Rob Oliphant, parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, said the repatriation process — which he described as the largest and most complex operation of its kind ever in Canada — is now about 75 to 80 per cent complete.

Oliphant, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne and hundreds of emergency response staff have been working for weeks on consular cases that demand both diplomacy and nimble logistics. To date, more than 160 flights have been organized to bring Canadians home from 76 countries.

Oliphant said he could not offer a timeframe for getting the rest of the travellers home because the remaining cases will be among the trickiest to resolve.

"We're getting there, but the last part is tough," he said.

Many of the Canadians still stuck abroad are in small groups in isolated locations. They include people on private boats who aren't allowed into port and those on various islands in the South Pacific and off South America, Africa and Southeast Asia.

"We had to have sweeper flights pick up people on dozens and dozens of islands to get them to Manila. The government had closed all transit between islands, among islands, so we had to get special permission to get Philippine Airlines to pick them up," Oliphant said.

One such flight carried passengers from 13 different locations.

Canada is working with allies to arrange flights. The partnering countries are engaging in "seat swapping," where one country offers seats on one flight in exchange for seats on another.

Lockdowns present internal transit challenge

With global travel essentially shut down and many countries in partial lockdown due to the pandemic (or, like Peru, under martial law), even helping people get to the airport can be a challenge.

"They need to register. We need to have the name of the driver, the vehicle licence number to get permits and they have to be issued by the government of Canada, the High Commission," Oliphant said. "And they may or may not be accepted by local authorities. So it's hugely labour intensive."

Canada is also required to get special permission to land aircraft in countries where the airspace has been shut down.

Oliphant said India has presented the biggest challenge in terms of sheer numbers, with a total of 24 flights that have either arrived or are being arranged.

More than 5,000 Canadians were on 130 cruise ships when the COVID-19 crisis began. Most of them are now home.

Despite the government's efforts to bring people home, many Canadians remain stranded.

Eduardo Garay of Toronto is trying to get his family home from Colombia. Pictured: his mother Rosa Munoz, his brother Mario Garay Munoz and sister-in-law Carmen Chica, who are stranded in the city of Medellin. (Submitted by Eduardo Garay)

Eduardo Garay of Toronto says he is worried and frustrated because his mother, brother and sister-in-law are trapped in Colombia.

At 87 years old, he said, his mother is too frail to make the eight-hour drive from Medellin to the airport in Bogota.

He said he hopes internal flights can be arranged to pick them up.

"We understand the logistical nightmare it is to make several stops in the country, but Colombia has cooperated with Canada," Garay said. "It has a very strong, good relationship and that might be an opportunity for an international flight to pick up Canadians stranded in different parts of Colombia."

He suggested a "two-way initiative" which could see flights returning Canadians home from Colombia, making several regional stops and then taking Colombians home from Canada.

He said he is personally aware of about 217 Canadians who want to leave Colombia and about 200 Colombians in Canada, mostly students, who want to go home.

Rick Green, a Canadian Armed Forces veteran, has been trapped in a small motel room in Tobago since he had to leave a vacation resort on March 27.

With complex PTSD from his time in the army, Green said he needs weekly therapy sessions and a regimented exercise program to manage his stress and anxiety.

Rick Green, an army veteran, is stuck in Tobago after a dream vacation turned into a nightmare due to the global pandemic. (Submitted by Rick Green)

Now he can't even go for a walk, as police are ordering everyone to stay inside.

"We are now in total lockdown except to go to the grocery store or pharmacy," he wrote in an email. 

He said he and his wife were offered seats on a flight from Trinidad to Toronto but they were unable to get to that airport from Tobago.

Health issues, financial stress

Along with his health issues, he has to cope with the financial stress of having to pay for food and rent in Tobago while the bills continue to pile up back home in High River, Alta.

Most of the companies he has contacted asking for temporary relief have not been helpful.

"I served my country and gave it my all, leading to physical and psychological injuries. And what do I get in return? Not much," he said.

Green said the one positive thing in this ordeal is the fact that there have been only four confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the island, with only one case now active.

Canadians who show symptoms of COVID-19 are not permitted to board any government-facilitated flight to Canada. Passengers are required to mask while on board and are legally required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival home.

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