KUWAIT: In this file photo, Indian nationals wait inside a school in Farwaniya to apply for an amnesty announced by Kuwaiti authorities for residency violators. – Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat

By Sajeev K Peter

KUWAIT: Hundreds of Indian expats who availed the amnesty offered by the Kuwait government are worried and waiting for a green signal from the Indian government for their repatriation to their home country, as flight services to the country remain suspended over the coronavirus lockdown. The Kuwait government, in an unprecedented initiative, has offered free air passage to all illegal residents to their home countries as part of the amnesty program.

However, Indian workers will remain sheltered indefinitely in various repatriation centers while their counterparts from other countries fly home. The Indian government has made it clear last week that it would not allow commercial flights to operate until it is fully confident that the COVID-19 pandemic is under control. The country is under lockdown until May 3.

“We are not sure when we will be able to go home, because there are no flights to India now,” said Abdulkareem, an Indian worker from Telangana state who applied for an emergency certificate (EC) with the Indian Embassy. India’s aviation regulator has told airlines not to take bookings, as the government has not yet decided when to recommence flights after the lockdown scheduled to end on May 3. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued the notification after some Indian airlines started taking bookings for May 4 onwards.

Unprecedented initiative
The amnesty program for people in the country without residency permits continues till April 30, 2020 and allows violators to leave Kuwait without paying any fines. According to the Indian Embassy, 5,000 residency violators with valid passports have cleared the amnesty papers so far. They have been moved to repatriation centers, while around 8,000 people without valid passports have applied for emergency certificates (ECs) from the embassy.

According to official estimates, there were around 24,400 illegal Indian residents in Kuwait as of Feb 28, 2020. Although the days allocated to Indian residency violators for processing their applications ended on April 20, the Indian Embassy is seeking more time for Indian workers to submit applications after April 26 in view of the surge in the number of amnesty-seekers.

“We are waiting for a green signal from the civil aviation authority. However, the DGCA is not expected to take a decision before May 3. It will review the prevailing situation when the lockdown ends and take a decision on resuming flights,” an Indian Embassy official told Kuwait Times. “When flights resume, our priority will be to send home around 250 Indians who are already in deportation centers in Kuwait,” the official added.

As part of the amnesty program, the Kuwait government has announced that it would forgo all residency-related penalties of the amnesty-seekers and offered a 30 percent waiver on all other debts or fines incurred by them. “The government is keen on making this amnesty program a big success. And it is for the first time that a Gulf country is offering free air passage to residency violators to leave the country. The government has offered special flights to various countries to repatriate foreign expat workers. It is an unprecedented initiative and a kind gesture,” said AjithKumar, Kerala Pravasi Welfare Board Director.

Sympathetic approach
India’s Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedhan told Indian media last week that the repatriation of non-resident Indians (NRIs) from Gulf countries would not happen anytime now as the country is under lockdown.

“We hope that our government in India would take a more sympathetic approach in this case and open its airspace as soon as possible,” said Ajithkumar. Other countries like the Philippines, Bangladesh, Egypt and Pakistan have begun repatriation of their nationals. The Philippines has already brought home around 2,000 workers who obtained the amnesty in Kuwait.

Meanwhile, the alarming rise in coronavirus cases among Indians in Kuwait has unnerved community members. As of Tuesday, more than 1,200 Indians have tested positive for COVID-19 in Kuwait. “People living in labor camps and laborers working in construction sites must become more serious about the epidemic.

They must strictly adhere to the COVID-19 containment guidelines issued by the government,” Kuwait Kerala Muslim Cultural Center (KKMCC) President Sharafuddeen Kanneth said. KKMCC, KALA Kuwait, Overseas Indian Cultural Congress, KKMA and other Indian cultural associations have opened help desks and their volunteers are providing assistance to amnesty seekers in processing their papers.