Hundreds of Indian students stranded in the UK have appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to organise a rescue flight amid the ongoing travel ban enforced by India to control the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. A group of at least 380 students from India has started a data chain with their passport details to create a collective voice to lobby the Indian government for action. Among them is a group of marine engineers from Kerala enrolled at the South Tyneside College in Tyne and Wear in north-east England, who were due to fly back to India after giving their management level exams this week.
"Our exams were supposed to happen on 23rd and 24th of March, but got cancelled on the 23rd after getting the question paper at the exam centre, by which time India's travel ban was in place," said Akhil Dharmaraj, First Engineer with NYK Ship Management who would be promoted to Chief Engineer once he clears his UK exams. However, he and other mariners in a similar situation have no information about the rescheduling of their exams as they remain in self-isolation in shared apartments and hostels, stepping out only to buy essentials from supermarkets where they are faced with long queues and empty shelves.
They have not been able to access any protective masks, gloves or sanitisers and are worried about contracting the deadly virus while miles away from their loved ones in India.
"I have information directly from Cochin Airport that recently a flight with Indian nationals landed from Sydney. Indians have been evacuated from other countries around the world as well but we are not sure why we have been abandoned and how we can make our voice heard to Prime Minister Modi," said Dharmaraj, who is part of a WhatsApp group of fellow Indian students based in different parts of England and Scotland.
"As we began the list, it just kept growing. Most of us came on short term student visas and are the supporting members of our family back in India," said the 32-year-old, who has a three-year-old daughter back home in Cochin. The UK Home Office has recently confirmed that any foreign students or professionals on visas that had expired or expiring would be given an extension at least until May 31.
Many of the stranded students, who are from different parts of India, including Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand, expressed their relief at the visa extension announcement but they remain concerned about the limited resources at their disposal in the face of mounting accommodation and essentials costs.
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Besides, many are exposed to greater risk of contracting COVID-19 due to being crammed into packed hostels with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities during the current lockdown imposed in the UK.
"Sir please if you can look into this matter because like me many of my Indian friends who came to UK for studies are stuck," said Margesh Raj from Coventry University in his plea to Prime Minister Modi on Twitter.
These students have also been creating videos to post on social media and appealing through the Indian High Commission in London, which has asked them to register their details.
Indian students' representative groups such as the National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK (NISAU-UK) and the Indian National Students Association (INSA) have also been issuing advisories and providing assistance.
The NISAU-UK has launched a new Home Away From Home virtual initiative targeted at this group of Indians, who find themselves stranded in the UK as a result of the lockdowns in both the countries.
"These are testing times for all, and we understand just how difficult it is for students in particular to be away from their families right now, as most of our volunteers are going through the same," said a NISAU-UK spokesperson.
"There are a series of activities planned, ranging from Netflix parties to webinars to career development and sessions from stand-up comics. We have extended this initiative to all Indians, no matter where in the world you are – NISAU has got your back," the spokesperson said.
India's updated travel advisory has imposed a ban on international flights until April 14 and the Indian High Commission in London has called on Indian nationals to follow the National Health Service (NHS) and Public Health England guidelines.
"The High Commission of India will update the Indian citizens if there are any changes in the travel advisory through our social media platforms and website... These are trying times. The world is in uncharted waters. We can come out of this challenge only if we act responsibly and help each other," the High Commission said in a statement.