Covid-19

Coronavirus

Confusion at airports left international travellers stranded

Confusion at airports left international travellers stranded
Illustrative image: A man looks out over the runway from the main viewing room as South African Airlines (SAA) jets prepare to take off from the main runway at OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, South Africa, 12 August 2016. (Photo: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK)

A rigid application of South Africa’s regulations regarding international travel saw several people deported to countries they have no connection with except for the passports they carry. Some of those affected are now considering legal steps.

*Mary, a 20-year-old Lund University (Sweden) student, arrived in Johannesburg on 18 March. Her plan was to meet up with her South African-based family and bunker down during the Covid-19 outbreak.

But eight hours after first touching down and trying to engage with immigration officers, she was forced on to a flight to Paris and deported.

“I knew I was going to be stopped because of my passport,” she told Daily Maverick. “That is why I prepared a lot of papers proving that I had not been in France for over a year. I wasn’t even born in France, I was born in Morocco.” 

Mary fell foul of South Africa’s travel regulations which stipulated that people from high-risk countries including Iran, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, China, France and the US were not allowed entry to South Africa.

“The day before I flew my father called the French Embassy in South Africa and asked them about my situation. And they told him they shouldn’t stop me because I didn’t come from France and that they were studying the travel history and not the nationality,” said Mary, who flew from Copenhagen Airport to Dubai and then on to Johannesburg. 

Unfortunately, that was not Mary’s experience.  Instead she was told to sign documents that indicated that she was  an “illegal foreigner” and “undesirable to the South African Republic”.

“The thing is, we didn’t know where I was going to end up so I signed the papers,” Mary said.

She was taken to a boarding gate having left her luggage with her family as she was not told where she would be flying. It was only once she was at the gate that she realised that she was going to be taken to Paris. 

“I begged them not to take me to Paris,” Mary said, “I have no family there. I know no one there. I had nothing. I had no clothes. I had nothing and I was going to be sent to France and be quarantined when I don’t even live there.”

And Mary was not alone in her predicament.

Muna Bilgrami’s daughter, Sofia, 25 and her two children (ages four and five) all hold British passports but came into ORT Airport from Karachi, Pakistan. Bilgrami, who lives in South Africa with her husband, had thought it best that the family be together during the lockdown.

Bilgrami herself had just landed from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with her husband and also worried about what reception they would receive as she is Danish and her husband is Canadian. 

“We had checked with the South African High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur to ensure it would be okay to travel to SA on UK passports given that the holders, our daughter and grandchildren, were travelling from Pakistan and had not been to the UK, and ours  (Canadian and Danish) and he affirmed it would be,” Bilgrami said. “What he actually said was ‘It should be’. Neither Pakistan nor Malaysia were on the ‘red list’ of the Covid-19 edict.”

Although Bilgrami was not denied access into South Africa, her daughter and grandchildren were and after spending most of the day in the immigration offices with no food or water, they were eventually deported on 19 March, 2020 back to Pakistan. 

“They were treated like criminals and all because of their UK passports even though they had not been in the UK and came from Pakistan, which was not on the red list,” Bilgrami said. “We had tried to reason with them. We had pointed out the kids had not been to the UK. The promulgation had come into effect one day before travel.”

Jessica Lawrence from Lawyers For Human Rights said there appeared to be inconsistency in the manner in which people were being detained or deported especially since it was unclear why travellers were being detained and then deported. 

“Generally, an immigration officer is within their power to detain and deport someone if they have not entered the country using a valid visa,” Lawrence told Daily Maverick. “If [people (were) being detained or deported] due to Covid-19, people should be isolated and not sent back. It is also unclear why people would be detained if they hold a passport from a high-risk country but have no travel history of travelling to high-risk areas.”

Lawrence added that what adds to the inconsistency is that usually a person is either deported to their home country or returned to the country from which they travelled. 

When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a travel ban on 15 March, 2020 as a means of mitigating the spread of the coronavirus, he made it clear that the ban would only apply to high-risk Covid-19 countries. 

A week later, the President enforced a nationwide lockdown for 21 days with effect from midnight on Thursday 26 March, 2020.

“International travellers who arrived in South Africa after 9 March, 2020 from high-risk countries will be confined to their hotels until they have completed a 14-day period of quarantine,” he said in his address to the nation. 

On 31 March, 2020, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula clarified during his update on aviation travel at the Inter-Ministerial Briefing that all international and domestic passenger flights were still prohibited, “irrespective of the risk category of the country of origin”. 

However, this statement was made a week after travellers who had come from low-risk countries had flown into SA and a day after Mbalula himself had tweeted that “us implementing quarantine will be based on travel history, not nationality”. 

Yet that did not apply to Charlie Higginbottom, 20, a British citizen, who arrived from the Seychelles to South Africa to visit his parents who live in Franschhoek on 18 March. 

“I checked online before I flew and it was still possible for me to travel and it just said that they would check based on your travel history rather than your nationality.” Higginbottom said.  “That didn’t seem to be the case when I handed in my passport in Johannesburg and the immigration officer took one look at it… then she withheld my passport and this is when she took me to the immigration centre.” 

David Hlabane, Communications Manager at the Department of Home Affairs told Daily Maverick that travel history should have been taken into consideration.

“The travel history is checked at the immigration counters by the officers who would scan the passport looking for stamps that would indicate a high-risk country. The passengers are also asked questions to determine routes travelled before entering SA,” Hlabane said. 

But at the immigration offices, Higginbottom was asked by staff to sign deportation forms and when he asked if he could speak to the supervisor first to ensure there was no way he could fly to Cape Town, he was told that he was “refusing to sign” the form. 

“I never said that I refused to sign it. They signed it, or they stamped it on my behalf.” Higginbottom said.

“And at no point did I sign it. Neither did I say that I won’t sign it. I obviously would have signed it. I would have read it, like a normal contract.”

Hlabane disputed these claims saying that “passengers are not forced to sign any documentation”.

Higginbottom was taken to the detention centre and he spent 24 hours there, with Yana Dzedze who experienced the same treatment as Higginbottom for having a British Passport but had landed in South Africa from Rwanda. 

Travellers at the detention centre have complained that the facility is a “hotbed” for the virus to spread. There are no World Health Organisation sanitary measures taken in terms of staff wearing masks and gloves, the travellers who are detained do not receive sanitiser or soap and the sheets on the beds are shared. 

“This certainly is concerning, particularly if people were being detained without the necessary safeguards being put into place,” Lawrence said. “It is also concerning if people were being detained for long periods of time at the airport, as this detention space is not meant for long-term detentions.”

Higginbottom was eventually deported back to the UK. A few days after Higginbottom was deported, his family moved back to the UK.

“My family were advised to leave South Africa by the UK foreign office because the UK would be closing its borders,” Higginbottom said. “And we all ended up being together as a family, which, in a way ended up being better than being separated with them in South Africa and me in the UK. So I am seeing the positives of all of this.”

Bilgrami and Mary are considering their options. 

“I don’t think my parents are going to take any legal issues,” Mary said. “My father just doesn’t want to have any problems with South Africa because they live there for now. So he’s scared of the repercussions, what they can do to him, he’s going to get kicked out. So yeah, it’s too risky.”

“I don’t know what to do. I’m considering taking action, put it that way,” Bilgrami said. “I’m considering further action. But you know, I will have to take advice.” DM

*not her real name

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