Uncertainty troubles South Africans stuck in Middle East

With no representation on the island in the Persian Gulf, South Africans stranded in Bahrain say they are in the dark about plans to get them home.

The group of 13 have to rely on the repatriation efforts by diplomatic authorities in nearby Saudi Arabia. But, like their fellow South Africans in Saudi, they have struggled to get permits to travel to airports to catch their flights home.

Members of the Bahrain group planned to cross the 25km King Fahd Causeway Bridge and make the 14-hour drive across Saudi Arabia to catch a flight from Jeddah to Johannesburg last week, but missed it because they were not able to get travel permits through the South African consulate in Riyadh.

Although Bahrain has not yet implemented strict lockdown regulations, many parts of Saudi Arabia — which, by Wednesday morning, had 20077 confirmed Covid-19 cases and a death toll of 152 — are under complete lockdown.

The lockdown has made it difficult for South Africans to access the repatriation efforts negotiated by the consulate in Saudi Arabia.

On Tuesday, Lunga Ngqengelele, the spokesperson for the department of international affairs and cooperation, said negotiating the repatriations of South Africans from the Middle East has been more difficult than from the United States and Europe. He said lockdowns in the Middle Eastern countries, as well as problems with finding flights, has added to this struggle.

Last Tuesday, after a frantic journey from Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, to the airport in Jeddah a group of 34 South Africans missed a repatriation flight by hours, because they got their travel permits too late.

The 34 caught a second flight last Thursday, only to leave behind 13 South Africans who had travelled across Saudi Arabia from Khobar to Jeddah. The Khobar group of 13 are now holed up in one of the few hotels in Jeddah that is still open and are waiting to hear if they will get home.

They blame the breakdown in communication between South African and Saudi authorities for their plight. “If there was proper planning in place — proper communication between Dirco [the department of international affairs and cooperation], the South African consulate and the Saudi embassy — then we would have made the flight,” said Imraan Kapery, one of the Khobar 13.

Last week Ali Alshehri, the first secretary of the Saudi embassy in Pretoria, said “it has gladly assisted the stranded South African
citizens by facilitating the issuance of all the necessary permits and documentations”. On Monday he said another plane from Jeddah to South Africa was expected to depart next week.

Meanwhile members of the Khobar group said on Monday this week that they are not sure they will be able to afford to stay in the pricey city without jobs to sustain them.

Arno Kemp in Bahrain is in a similar position. Having lost his job as the manager of a training academy, he is eager to get home to his son in Cape Town. The Bahrain government closed all educational institutions in February to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Kemp said the Bahrain group has had little communication from the South African consulate in Saudi Arabia, which is meant to co-ordinate their repatriation.

“We’ve been sending emails asking: ‘Okay, we failed in our attempt to get onto the flight in Jeddah because of these permits, now what are you doing? What is the plan?’ And they keep ignoring us.”

Watching South Africa’s lockdown unfold from afar has been hard for Kemp. “It is difficult when you are sitting here and your family’s over there. And you can’t be with them or even just be close by.”

But not knowing what the future holds has been especially difficult. “I think it is the uncertainty that is kind of getting to me and other people,” Kemp said.

“I am going back home without a job. So that’s going to be another challenge. What’s going to happen next? I think that is what people are really worried about.”

Isabel Germishuys was unprepared for her unexpected prolonged stay in Bahrain. She had packed her suitcase for a three-week visit to meet her new grandchild.

Germishuys’s daughter, Andrika Olivier, said on Tuesday: “She can’t stay here for this crazy amount of time. She is losing work. She is not getting paid because she is not working.”

Worse still, Germishuys has run out of her chronic medication, which is not available in Bahrain. “She didn’t pack for six or nine weeks or for an unknown amount of time,” said Olivier. “It’s a stress on my mom. So it of course stresses me out … and I am worried about her health. So it’s quite a frustrating situation to deal with everything — having a newborn and then this situation where my mom came to meet her grandchild and now she can’t get back home.”

On Tuesday, Ngqengelele reiterated that, if South Africans are registered for repatriation, the department of international affairs and co-operation will do everything in its power to get them back home.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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