A couple of weeks ago we published a letter from a group of Mauritians in Italy who were stranded in a hotel where they had been put up after a cruise trip, since lockdown had already been imposed locally. They had been there for two months, and were desperate to come back. Besides bureaucratic hassles, they had faced rudeness on the part of the Mauritian embassy staff in Paris who were contacted for advice and assistance. We learn that they flew back home on 21st May, relieved to be freed from what amounted to being in almost prison-like conditions: for all these weeks they were forced to stay in their rooms and could not even go down to the lobby. As to the food – pasta and boiled fish at every meal – the less said the better.
This issue of our Mauritian compatriots being literally abandoned by the Mauritian State will no doubt go down in our history as an ugly chapter in our management of the Covid-19 crisis. In the past several days, social media has carried many witness accounts by Mauritians who have been left to their own devices abroad after lockdown was declared, and worse, were allegedly facing the refusal of the State of Mauritius to allow them to return to their country. This is in sharp contrast to what other countries have been doing, undertaking to bring their citizens back from countries where they happened to be in at the time of declaration of the pandemic by WHO. As those from India who spoke said, in Mauritius the authorities often cite India as an example. So why are they not emulating what India is doing: the Indian government has taken the bull by its horns and organized the repatriation of 100,000 Indian nationals by air and sea. Several thousands have already been brought back.
The Mauritians who have been locked out of their country and find themselves in alien environments abroad are in a sorry plight. Whether they had gone for treatment, work, study or vacation, they suddenly found themselves trapped in places which themselves were locking down, and that included hotels, eating places, public transport. They had carried money enough to cover expenses for the duration of their expected stays abroad, so they quickly found themselves short of money, without any ready help forthcoming, and cut off from their only lifeline, the Mauritian Embassies and High Commissions.
There are heart-trending tales of despair and suffering, of helplessness which seem to have fallen on the deaf ears of the Mauritian authorities, such as that of the couple in Botswana, the wife being pregnant and nearing seven months after which she will not be allowed to take a plane. Besides, they will soon reach the expiry of the three months they have rented a house for, at Rs 50 K per month, and are at a loss to know what to do next. Another group in South Africa has been left in the lurch after being made to purchase tickets anew, and it includes a lady who has suffered a second stroke while waiting.
During the official press briefing on Monday 25th May evening, it was stated: ‘Rapatriement des mauriciens bientôt de: Chennai, Mumbai, Madagascar, Reunion, Australie. Ils seront tous placés en quarantaine avec un protocole sanitaire renforcé. Le gouvernement est en contact avec les compagnies de bateaux de croisière pour l’assistance aux compatriotes bloqués sur ces navires.’
This statement sounds hollow – coming as it does after the Government would not allow the nine Mauritians who were aboard the Island Princess cruise ship – that had sailed from South Africa – that was about 30 miles off Mahebourg coast to be brought ashore last weekend, despite legal proceedings being initiated. The ship has been forced to sail away, and the nine cruise ship workers will change ship in Mumbai, whence they will be taken to Philippines. They are likely to remain there for 2-3 months, and it will be quite some time before they are reunited with their families.
Along with the relatives of these unfortunate compatriots still stranded abroad, all Mauritian citizens were expecting the Prime Minister in his much awaited intervention on Monday last to throw some light on the plight of these nine Mauritians. This did not happen, and on 27th evening during the press briefing, there was just a repeat of the earlier mention about coordination with and by the embassies to repatriate our citizens; not a word about the nine ones on the Island Princess.
According to expert legal opinion, the right of any citizen to return to his country is enshrined in our Constitution, and Government’s action is nothing short of being unconstitutional. At this juncture of our history, when under cover of a sanitary crisis harsh laws have been enacted, perhaps only suo moto judicial activism can come to the defence and salvation of our citizens whose cri de coeur has resonated in so many Mauritian hearts and homes. The official statement about repatriation makes no allusion to any timeline. Will the judiciary, our bulwark in the the defence of citizens’ rights, come to the rescue?
* Published in print edition on 29 May 2020