Apuroop and Savindhi did all they could to get on one of the last flights out of Morocco, but are still waiting for news of repatriation.
With no end in sight, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to induce major anxiety across the globe. The border closures that came with the pandemic left countless scared citizens marooned far from home. UAE residents stranded in Morocco are among the thousands of citizens desperate to return to their families.
The closure of international borders and the restricted access to air travel has left thousands of people on the wrong side of the borders. With their savings quickly drying up, stranded tourists, businessmen, students, and job seekers have found themselves in a race against the clock—a race with no defined finish line.
Apuroop Kypuram and Savindhi Nishalie Motha are an Indian-Sri Lankan couple who fell under the charm of Morocco’s international tourism reputation. The couple decided to visit the North African country for four days, little did they know, however, that their short trip was going to turn into a three-month (and counting) stay.
The couple have lived in Dubai, the UAE, for more than 30 years and consider the Gulf country as their home, as everyone they know, including their parents and friends, live there. Nationalities are the only links Apuroop and Savindhi still have with their countries of origin.
On March 14, one day before Morocco suspended international commercial flights, the couple landed at the Casablanca Mohammed V Airport, eager for their first taste of Moroccan culture.
However, a few hours after their arrival, Apuroop and Savindhi heard rumors about the upcoming flight restrictions the Moroccan government was about to implement. The couple quickly attempted to shorten their four-day trip to a one-day visit and book seats on the last available flight back to Dubai on March 15, but all seats were already taken.
Despite the negative response to their flight request, the couple went back to the airport to check if they could find seats on a flight to take them out of the country before the border closure, but to no avail.
“We realized that if we do not find a flight, we might be stranded for a few weeks,” Apuroop told MWN, recalling his struggle to navigate between the airport’s information desks due to the large crowd of tourists desperately hoping to book some of the last available flights.
After losing all hope of cutting their trip short, Apuroop and his fiancee took a train to Tangier where they had a reservation at a guest house run by a local family. On May 20, when Morocco’s nationwide lockdown entered into force, the couple decided to stay at the guest house until they could get back home.
“We decided to remain here to not get into trouble, especially since we do not know anyone [in Morocco]. Fortunately, both our UAE residence visas are still valid,” Apuroop said.
Staying at the guest house incurred more expenses than Apuroop and Savindhi were initially expecting and led them to dig deep into their savings. As of June 18, Apuroop told MWN he and his fiancee had spent approximately €7,000 for food and accommodation, in addition to the utilities and rent they continue to pay in the UAE.
The couple has experienced Moroccan hospitality when the family running the guest house let them stay for a much lower rate than the regular price, but expenses continue to stack up, especially as Apuroop is on unpaid leave.
While Savindhi was able to resume her work remotely, Apuroop’s position requires physical presence in Dubai, leading his employer to put him on unpaid leave until he can get back to the UAE.
The couple, who both have permanent residency cards in the UAE, got in touch with the Emirati Embassy in Rabat as soon as Morocco imposed a lockdown. However, to date, the diplomatic mission has not shared any news about repatriation flights.
“While there have been a number of repatriation flights for citizens of the UK, the US, India, and other countries, we are yet to hear of any other positive news with regards to UAE residents returning home soon,” Apuroop said.
“The embassy advised we contact them every two weeks for any update,” he continued.
The gloomy, uncertain future awaiting Apuroop and Savindhi has led them, and their families, to suffer from stress and anxiety. Through regular video calls, the stranded tourists share their worries and fears with their relatives in the UAE.
“We are full of stress and anxiety due to the extension of the lockdown and no news about repatriation. Both our families are naturally stressed,” Apuroop said.
“We only wish to return to Dubai as it is the only home we know. Even if there was a repatriation flight for India or Sri Lanka, we would still choose Dubai as our family, friends, and home are all there,” he continued.
Despite being in an unexpected, stressful situation, the couple were able to find a silver lining through forging friendships with their hosts and the staff at the guest house.
“The staff at the guest house were super kind and always took care of us. We became like a family,” Apuroop commented.
Although their stay at the guest house in Tangier was an enjoyable experience, the couple’s deteriorating financial situation is forcing them to embark on a new adventure.
As MWN was talking to Apuroop, he and his fiancee were packing up to travel to Casablanca. An Indian man residing in the Moroccan metropolis had heard their story and offered them a stay at one of his apartments in Morocco’s economic capital, free of charge.
“He is willing to drive all the way from Casablanca to Tangier to pick us up,” Apuroop said in a tone that mixes excitement and anxiety.
“This is very generous on his behalf … but it is yet to happen,” he continued, hinting at his worries about beginning a new adventure in Casablanca.
Victims of diplomatic tensions?
The UAE Embassy in Rabat was one of the first diplomatic missions in Morocco to offer support to Emirati citizens and residents in the North African country, creating a crisis communication cell on March 12.
However, while hundreds of flights repatriated European and American tourists from Morocco, the UAE was only able to repatriate approximately 180 citizens between March and April.
In early April, the Gulf country angered Rabat after scheduling a joint flight to repatriate Israeli and Emirati tourists stranded in Marrakech and Casablanca. The country failed to disclose all of the flight’s details to Moroccan authorities.
The North African country was surprised to discover that both Israel and the UAE agreed to evacuate their citizens in a joint flight without consulting Morocco, leading to the flight’s cancellation. Since then, the UAE has not repatriated any of its citizens or residents from Morocco.
The incident led to speculation about diplomatic tensions between Morocco and the UAE. In the same week, thousands of alleged Emirati social bots attacked Morocco’s Head of Government Saad Eddine El Othmani, reinforcing the rumors about the growing rift between Rabat and Abu Dhabi.
The bots controlled fake accounts claiming to be Moroccan citizens before attacking Morocco and its head of government, and criticizing the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Abu Dhabi’s threats of imposing restrictions on a list of countries, including Morocco, for not repatriating their citizens amid the COVID-19 crisis further fueled the rumors.
The UAE’s Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation expressed frustration with countries that are not attempting to repatriate their citizens, adding that there are plans to restructure cooperation and labor relations with these countries.
The successive incidents may have delayed the repatriation of Apuroop and Savindhi, along with dozens of Emirati citizens and residents.
Two sides of the same coin
The story of Apuroop and Savindhi mirrors the struggle of thousands of Moroccans who are stranded in the UAE, not knowing when they can come back to Morocco.
The Gulf country is the main destination for Moroccan migrants in the Middle-East who travel for employment, attracted by the numerous job opportunities and the worthwhile salaries.
However, the COVID-19 crisis has led many of them to lose their jobs. Having no source of income and no permanent residency permits, the migrants have been forced to live off their savings and aid from their relatives and friends until Morocco arranges flights to bring them back home.
According to Morocco’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Moroccan diplomatic missions around the world have received more than 33,000 repatriation requests from stranded nationals. While the number of Moroccans stranded in the UAE is unclear, it is estimated to be in the thousands.
On June 9, Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Bourita announced the country’s strategy to bring back its citizens stranded abroad.
Morocco has so far repatriated citizens from Algeria, Spain, and Turkey. According to the plan, Moroccans stranded in Gulf countries are the next to benefit from repatriation. However, Bourita did not specify which Gulf countries will be included in the operation, nor the date of flights.
Pending official announcements of repatriation flights, both Moroccans stuck in the UAE and Emirati residents stranded in Morocco will continue to live in uncertainty, sharing the same worries and fears, like two sides of the same coin.