Proactively taking steps to facilitate safe return of Indians stranded in Iran, MEA tells SC

SRINAGAR: Feeling the heat, the External Affairs Ministry  (EAM) has assured the Supreme Court that they are proactively taking steps to ensure well being of Indian nationals stranded in Iran and facilitate their safe return wherever possible.

“Government attaches high importance to safety and the well-being of the Indians stranded in Iran. This is evident from the fact that EAM took the initiative to meet the parents of some of the Indian students stranded in Iran during his visit to J&K on March 9,” said Suresh Kumar,  Director (Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran), Ministry of External Affairs, in the status report.

Kumar noted that  External Affairs Minister also met representatives of the pilgrims’ relatives and leaders from Ladakh and apprised them of steps being taken by the government to ensure safety, welfare, and return of the stranded pilgrims after testing”,

“In keeping with the assurances given in the Parliament and to the families of the Indians stranded in Iran, the government and Indian Embassy and Consulates continue to work tirelessly to ensure the safety and well being of all Indian nationals and facilitate the expeditious return. A special cell and helpline have been created in the Ministry of External Affairs to address concerns of the Indians stranded abroad in the wake of measures taken to prevent, control and contain the spread of COVID-19”, he said.

Kumar said the government is fully seized of the matter and proactively taking steps to ensure the safety, welfare, and well being of the Indian nationals in Iran and facilitate their safe repatriation.

Seemingly unsatisfied with the Centre’s assurances, petitioners have questioned the government’s lack of empathy towards the three pilgrims of Ladakh who died unsung in the gulf nation.

“If going and meeting the parents of the students in Srinagar is a sign of the seriousness, why has no one from the ministry met the relatives of the three pilgrims from Ladakh who have died in Iran or for that matter any family members of the pilgrims”, said Mustafa MH, who has filed a civil suit in the Supreme Court seeking relief and evacuation of Indians stranded in Iran.

The poser comes in response to the status report submitted by External Affairs Ministry (EAM) in the Supreme Court boasting that the foreign minister met representatives of the pilgrim relatives and apprised them of steps being taken by the government to ensure safety, welfare, and return of the stranded pilgrims after tests.

The petitioner said that while it is true that the samples of the pilgrims were taken for testing but no medical team had visited them in the hotels.  That is the reason why people were protesting and sending SOS videos in the first place, he said.

“On March 10, 58 people who were tested negative were evacuated. However, those 27 people who were tested positive were sent back to the same hotels where they had been put up earlier. They were made to stay with other people under the same roof and sharing the same spaces. No quarantine facility was extended to the pilgrims who were suspected to be positive.  Therefore, it is but natural that the number shot from 27 positive cases to 250 positive cases,” he said.

Mustafa said there was no proper medical facility provided to the people. He said since the time these people have been suspected as positive there has not been any proper check-up.  

“It is true that most of the people are well and healthy and showing no complications whatsoever but they have been buying the medicines on their own from the Iranian. The pilgrims were also paying for their accommodation in the hotels they were staying in,” he said.

Only a few days ago the remaining 300 people have been moved to a place which has a functioning system, he said. “The pilgrims have been paying for the accommodation on their own and it has not been made clear how the government is providing them the accommodation…It has been more than 25 days the people have been kept in quarantine and all the people are healthy”, he said.

Mustafa noted that the government has also acknowledged that the pilgrims are doing fine. “In light of the government report, other people should be evacuated soon. People have been facing immense depression and requesting an early evacuation,” he said.

MEA in its status report said since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Iran on February 19, the Indian Embassy in Tehran and Consulates in Bandar Abbas and Zahedan have proactively reached out to all Indians living in Iran and ensuring that they were in good health and had adequate provisions.

“This has continued to be done even amidst the most challenging circumstances and impediments due to inter-provincial lock-down imposed by the Iranian authorities to contain and control the spread of the disease,” said Suresh Kumar.

As per available information, there were over 6,000 Indian nationals in various provinces of Iran. They include nearly 1,100 pilgrims from Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Maharashtra; nearly 300 students primarily from Jammu and Kashmir; about 1,000 fishermen from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Gujarat; and others who are on longer-term stay visas in Iran for pursuing their livelihood and religious studies.

The pilgrims were mainly residing in Qom city. Students were putting up in Tehran, Shiraz, Esfahan, and Kish while as fishermen were residing in Asaluyeh, Chiruyeh, and Kish cities.

Given the scale of COVID-19 and its pressure on Iran’s resources, a team of six Indian health officials were deputed to Iran to set up testing and sampling facilities in early March.

“There were operational constraints. Given that restrictions had been instituted for public health reasons in Iran, it was not easy to organize transport, accommodation, and other logistics. Nevertheless, the Embassy staff and the medical team worked round-the-clock under difficult conditions”, he said.

 A total of 2023 samples, including that of 1158 Indian pilgrims, belonging to Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir and Maharashtra were collected. These were sent to India in batches as an when the flights were available and tested at the National Institute of Virology, Pune.

The first batch of 108 samples was received in India on March 7. 65 of these tested negative for COVID-19. Samples of 529 more Indians were received on March 10 which was tested in the National Institute of Virology, Pune. Of these, 384 tested negative. 

558 samples (including 141 students) were brought to India on March 13 of which 476 were negative. On March 15, 319 samples (including 68 of Indian students) were brought to India of which 291 were negative. On March 16, 192 samples were brought, of which 185 were negative. On March 18, 317 samples were brought to India for testing.

“Steps were also initiated by the government for the safe and early return of the Indians stranded in Iran. Given a large number of Indians in Iran, it was natural that the government sought to sequence their return, taking into account their age, nature of residency, location and exposure”, he said.

Kumar said the initial focus was on the pilgrims because they were predominantly elderly; most of them were in Qom where COVID-19 incidence had been strong. “Later the focus was on Indian students. Many of the students were studying medicine and fully aware of the precautions to be taken in this difficult situation. The region where most fishermen are located has not been affected so severely. These factors guided the approach”, he said.

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