“I understand the measures, they’re designed to protect us. However, they’re very disruptive”

A number of foreign visitors to South Africa and some who were on the verge of emigrating, remain in limbo as the coronavirus lockdown has halted international travel.

Despite the efforts of many states to repatriate their citizens from South Africa, many have not qualified for these flights or have not been able to afford them.

Ester Viera, 60, previously lived in South Africa but has been living in Portugal for the last 20 years. She was in South Africa for a holiday with her husband and was intending to fly back on March 25, but the flight was cancelled as the lockdown came into effect. She is now staying with her sister-in-law in Centurion and is uncertain about when they will return to Portugal.

“Tickets are very expensive. I’ll rather wait it out. Thankfully, my husband is retired, so we can stay here as long as we like,” Viera says.

Monica Guedes, 26, a South African citizen with a Portuguese passport, sold her house and was due to emigrate to Portugal at the end of March. She says, “The repatriation flights are very expensive. It’s 1000 euros to Doha, then an additional 1000 euros to Porto.”

The Portuguese consulate has offered assistance by organizing commercial flights to Doha, via Qatar Airways, and provided Portuguese citizens with a 10% discount o the cost. However, as a result of the pandemic, the one-way tickets remain extremely overpriced. In addition, it remains the responsibility of the traveller to secure a flight from Doha to the final destination in Portugual.

Guedes said, “There are no guarantees of connecting flights to our destination. It’s a huge risk at this point. Who knows if we will be stuck in a foreign country without shelter or food?” For Guedes, the risk is too high given that she would be travelling with her elderly grandmother. “It’s a very, very long route, and my grandmother probably won’t make that trip,” Guedes said.

Nonetheless, some have chosen to take the repatriation flights. Margie Martins, who lives in Portugal, was able leave South Africa on repatriation flight. She told Wits Vuvuzela, “I managed to leave South Africa on a repatriation flight on April 17.”

Judy Karpathakis, 50, a South African who had emigrated to Greece in August 2019 with her family, had returned to South Africa tie up loose ends before the lockdown had started and grounded commercial flights. Karpathakis also does not know when she will be able to get to Greece and says that there a number of people she knows in a similar situation. “A fair few of them quit their jobs, sold or rented their houses, bought their plane tickets only to have their flights cancelled due to the airports shutting down,” Karpathakis said.

Speaking to the Greek City Times, Greek deputy minister of civil protection and crisis management, Nikos Hardalias, said repatriation flights will only be available to citizens in difficult circumstances. This includes people with no accommodation, people stranded in transit in airports, or those that are in need of urgent health care.

Guedes said that she and her family are racking up expenses as they wait for the opportunity to head to Portugal. “We are being forced to stay in the home which we sold. My family have had to pay occupational rent. I have had to decline job offers overseas and cancel interviews … I understand the measures. They’re designed to protect us. However, they’re very disruptive,” she said.

Karpathakis says, “The biggest impact to those of us in limbo is that we still have to pay rates and taxes, insurance etc, while we can’t sell and don’t have an income.”

According to a European Parliament briefing released on April 1, European Union member states have received help through the European External Action Service (EEAS) to retrieve their citizens stranded in other countries. As of April 24, 19 repatriation flights had left South Africa.

FEATURED IMAGE: Travel restrictions stand in the way for those looking to emigrate or return home from South Africa. Photo: Catia De Castro