Chinese citizens trapped in Pakistan as its ban on international flights remains effective

Over the last few months, many countries have been trying to repatriate citizens stranded in different parts of the world. However, more than 200 Chinese citizens have been trapped in Pakistan since March 21, as the country announced a ban on international flights amid its fight to contain the COVID19 pandemic. Despite multiple attempts to seek help from the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan and China’s Foreign Ministry, neither party wanted to take the responsibility for evacuating the Chinese citizens stranded in Pakistan.

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to ravage through the world, most governments have been busy fighting off the spread of the pandemic. They have also been trying to repatriate citizens trapped in other countries. However, there are at least more than 200 Chinese citizens who have been stranded in Pakistan for almost two months. Many of them have urgent needs to return to China due to health related or other personal reasons.

Huang Zheng left Guangdong in early March, as he planned to travel in Pakistan for more than a week. However, his trip came to an abrupt end when Pakistan announced its ban on all international flights on March 21. The announcement forced Huang and other Chinese citizens to remain in Islamabad. “I secured the visa before the coronavirus outbreak, and I wanted to visit the country during my holiday,” Huang said. “However, I never thought my trip would be disrupted by a sudden ban on all international flights. I have been stranded in Islamabad for almost two months.”

According to Huang, he and other Chinese citizens sought help from the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan, but the embassy claimed that they didn’t have enough authority to organize their repatriation, so the embassy asked them to come up with their own plans. Then they tried to contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which simply asked them to provide some personal information and claimed that they would share the information with the embassy in Islamabad.

“The Chinese government tossed our requests around without trying to address it,’ Huang said. “Ultimately, we were left to come up with plans on our own. We considered taking the repatriation flights operated by other countries to get to a third country first, but then we were afraid that if we were denied entry to any of those places, we will be stranded at the airport. So we gave up eventually.”

Huang tried to buy plane tickets from different airlines, but all the tickets were cancelled in the end. Pakistan has extended the ban on international flights three times since they first announced it on March 21. The latest information suggests that the ban will be extended to May 25.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s number of confirmed coronavirus cases continues to rise rapidly over the last few weeks. On May 1, the country has recorded more than 16,000 confirmed cases and 385 deaths in total. However, over the last two weeks, that number has doubled, increasing the total number of confirmed cases and deaths to to 37,218 and 803.

“Currently, there are at least 200 to 300 Chinese citizens stranded in Pakistan, and most of them are businessmen or travelers who planned to stay in Pakistan for a short period of time,” said Mr. Lee, who refused to give his full name out of fear for retribution. “There are also some Chinese students and pregnant women. Since the outbreak reached Pakistan, many schools have closed their dorms, leaving some Chinese students with no where to go.”

Concerns about being caught in a major outbreak

Lee described some concerning scenes on the street of Pakistan over the last few weeks. Since Pakistan announced the ban on international flights on March 21, only stores selling food are allowed to operate while the rest of the stores have to remain closed. However, since the government didn’t prohibit people from being in the public, streets are often filled with people and according to Lee, only around 10 percent of them would wear masks.

And since Ramadan began a few weeks ago, the government has reopened mosques and Pakistanis will often gather in mosques without wearing masks. “In the evening, locals will gather outside in groups and wait for local government to distribute food,” Lee said. “However, most of them are not wearing masks, which raises the possibility of a major outbreak. Even if around 10% of the people are wearing masks, most of the masks are made from clothing fabrics, which doesn’t really have the same effect as medical masks.”

Huang Zheng added that since the Pakistani government lifted the ban on business operation, small businesses have been allowed to operate again, causing large amount of people to rush to local markets. “In Karachi, due to the large amount of people visiting local markets, it was impossible for the government to enforce the rules of maintaining social distances,” said Huang. “This caused the city to shut down public markets once again. I think Pakistan is unable to contain the pandemic because the country is witnessing a steady increase of new cases on a daily basis.”

Huang said most Chinese citizens stranded in Pakistan has lost hope in the government’s ability to stop the outbreak. In order to minimize the risks they are facing, most of them have to stay home while others try to buy up necessities that can last for a month. “Most of us feel like we can’t see the end of the pandemic in Pakistan, and we feel like the risks of being in public continue to rise despite the government’s policy to ban domestic and international flights. We don’t feel safe to leave the house.”

Apart from Pakistan, there are also Chinese citizens trapped in India, Nepal or even Kenya. As they see other governments repatriate their citizens from these countries, they realized that demanding the government to help them return to their own countries is their basic rights. However, while they tried to seek Beijing’s assistance, there are growing criticisms against them in China.

“Some people describe our demand to return to China as ‘trying to spread the coronavirus from across the continent,’” said Li. “They criticized us for demanding to return to China, since they think that increase the risk of another outbreak in the country. These comments really hurt us a lot.”

Based on credible information, the group of Chinese citizens trapped in Pakistan include several pregnant women who require immediate medical assistance and individuals with elderly parents. Additionally, some people were fired from their jobs after being in Pakistan for too long. Huang Zheng is one of them. He said that while several Chinese airlines have been using commercial airplanes to send medical supplies to Pakistan, these airlines have refused to let Chinese citizens stranded in Pakistan to get on the empty commercial flights and go home.

“Since I have been in Pakistan for too long, my employer has fired me,” Huang said. “I even considered going back to China through the border between the country and Xinjiang, but since the altitude is too high, it isn’t suitable for normal travelers. So I have to gave up the idea.”

Huang said that even though the Chinese community in Pakistan continues to reach out to the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan, the embassy merely responded by saying that they are coordinating with relevant departments in China but can’t promise when these stranded citizens can return to China.

The embassy’s phone went unanswered after I tried to call them multiple times.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.