Government operation to bring home pandemic-stranded Canadians almost complete, says MP

The massive operation to take home thousands of Canadians arrested for pandemic travel strikes has hit the region: almost 90% of those who have sought government help are back in the country.

By the end of the week, almost 40,000 people will be repatriated from 100 countries around the world on 356 flights, according to the federal government.

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Rob Oliphant, parliamentary foreign affairs secretary who leads the repatriation operation with Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne, said the remaining cases are the most difficult and, in some cases, the most unusual.

"The last part of the marathon is always the most difficult," he said.

Off the circuit in Peru

A case brought to Oliphant's attention by another parliamentarian this week presents a new take on self-isolation: a Canadian woman who spent two months in the Peruvian jungle only discovered the global crisis of COVID-19 after leaving the bush.

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Another unsolved case involves a member of the Canadian cruise ship crew who is now trying to get home the longest way; this individual and other crew members are sailing from the Caribbean across the Atlantic to Southampton, England, because no nearest port will accept the ship.

More than 5,000 Canadians were abroad on 130 cruise ships when the pandemic occurred. Most of them are now at home, but dozens of crew members remain at sea.

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Oliphant said some Canadians are being held in remote, isolated or island locations. Others are stuck in places where there are security and safety issues or in countries with which Canada does not have diplomatic relations.

While these cases are "extremely challenging," he said, the government is still trying to resolve them. In some cases, he added, it just isn't possible.

& # 39; You will stay here for a while & # 39;

"Essentially, we say that you will be here for a while, we will help you take shelter until commercial options return, until blockades are lifted, until traffic is easier," said Oliphant.

In terms of scale, one of the most challenging countries for the repatriation effort was India. The federal government helped more than 12,000 Canadians and permanent residents to get there.

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Oliphant said Canada has recently been working with India to take Indian citizens home, so planes carry passengers in both directions.

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Neeraj Bhardwaj of Waterloo, Ontario. he spent many sleepless nights worrying about his seriously disabled father, wife and son, who were imprisoned in India for several weeks.

"It was terrifying"

After what he calls "agonizing waiting", they arrived home on Wednesday.

It was a tremendous relief for Bhardwaj, whose three-year-old son Jay has developmental problems and a rare form of epilepsy that can cause multiple seizures a day. He was looking forward to medical care and treatments for his son during his unexpectedly extended stay.

"It was scary," said Bhardwaj. "That was my absolute worst fear – what if something happened? I don't know if they are going to get an ambulance or helicopter, if necessary, to go to a better hospital."

Neeraj Bhardwaj of Waterloo, Ontario. meets with his son Jay after his family has returned home from India with help from the federal government. (Provided by Neeraj Bhardwaj)

The group made the trip to visit the family and seek expert medical advice for Jay. After the scheduled return flight was canceled, they missed the first government-assisted flight for financial reasons. They were removed from the second flight shortly before departure because Jay experienced an episode of nausea (unrelated to COVID-19).

They finally arrived home on a government-organized flight operated by Qatar Airways. Bhardwaj said he is grateful for the many people who helped make this happen.

Your family is now quarantined for 14 days, as required by law in Canada for people arriving home from international destinations.

At the height of the repatriation operation, Oliphant said, he received 1,800 emails a day about idle travelers. That has dropped to about 200 since then.

& # 39; Troubleshooters & # 39;

Oliphant said the success of the operation was largely due to the work of Global Affairs Canada diplomatic, research and policy officials, who work around the clock.

"They became travel agents. They became problem solvers," he said.

Canada's strong diplomatic relations with countries around the world have also helped in the emergency exercise, he said.

Canada has worked with other countries to coordinate and exchange seats on flights. With airspace closings, blockades and curfews in several countries, the government must also negotiate authorizations and other logistical requirements to expel people with local and national authorities.

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