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'This eclipses the shutdowns following 9/11': The battle to get 2,000 Irish citizens home

The majority of stranded Irish citizens are in Australia or New Zealand, the Department of Foreign Affairs said.
Mar 25th 2020, 2:54 PM 55,899 40

Updated Mar 25th 2020, 9:36 PM

THE IRISH GOVERNMENT HAS said that it’s leaving “no stone unturned” in its efforts to assist over 2,000 Irish citizens who are stranded abroad due to countries closing their borders and flights being grounded because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The majority of Irish citizens are stranded in Australia, with a “couple of hundred” in New Zealand, a Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said. There are around 100 Irish citizens stranded in Peru, with the remainder in a further 83 countries.

John McMenamin, an Irish expat in Sydney, told TheJournal.ie yesterday that airlines were still advertising flights even though virtually no flights were leaving Sydney. He also said that airlines were charging extraordinary prices for one-way tickets home to Ireland.

A number of young Irish people in Australia are in a particularly precarious position, as many of the industries they are working in – like bars and restaurants – have closed to help slow the spread of Covid-19.

In Peru, a strict lockdown closed all land, air and sea borders at very little notice, leaving around 100 Irish citizens stranded; the Irish government is now planning to charter a plane over to Lima, Peru to collect them and bring them home.

TheJournal.ie has also been in contact with Irish citizens in Thailand who have also been left stranded – one of whom is a health worker trying to get home.

In a lengthy, detailed statement today, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs told TheJournal.ie

We are witnessing the biggest shutdown in global aviation since the dawn of commercial flight.
We have never seen anything like it before, it eclipses the shutdowns following the September 11th attacks and the volcanic ash crisis.The situation is fast-moving and volatile.
What we have seen in recent days is not only countries, but entire regions, close off airspace and ground airlines at short notice.

“This has lead to people who had confirmed and booked flights having them cancelled suddenly or being refused at airports.

“We are in close ongoing contact with airlines and aviation companies and are exploring all options. There are still commercial flights, some of them multi stop.

“The situation is no longer as simple as chartering flights, we need permission to enter airspace and regions on the way back to Ireland. Therefore, for the last 24 hours we have been focused on getting every possible Irish citizen on the shrinking number of commercial flights.”

covid-19-situation-in-brisbane-australia-25-mar-2020 A woman wears a face mask as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus at Brisbane Airport. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Australia

In the case of Australia, we have a significant group travelling commercially through London today and others will travel through Qatar tomorrow. We need to continue to take every seat possible on commercial flights in the coming days.

In a statement this evening, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that this flight left Australia earlier today. 

“I wish to confirm the successful departure of 170 Irish citizens from Perth, Australia on a flight this afternoon. This group will transit through the UK and should arrive back in Ireland tomorrow,” Coveney said.

Their departure was achieved by the efforts and determination of our Embassy and Consulates in Australia, working with Qantas. I want to thank them all. Our consular team at HQ continues their efforts to assist all our citizens around the world who have been affected by the coronavirus and are looking to come home. We are working on a number of options and hope to facilitate further flights in the coming days.

One Irish expat in Australia Colm Cahill, who is from Birr in Co Offaly, said that the situation for Irish visa holders in Australia has “gotten extreme”. 

He says that some people’s visas are due to expire soon, and others have spent the last of their money on flights home, only for the flight to have been cancelled.

In the past week myself and my partner spent close to €5,000 on two separate flights that were cancelled… Airlines are taking money for essentially cancelled flights and then issuing flight vouchers.

Cahill has set up a Facebook group called ‘Get us home from Australia (Ireland)’ to try to gather Irish people across Australia in the one place.

He says that through this group, he’s learned that there are pensioners among those trapped in Australia, people who need very specific mediation, children, and someone with an Irish passport about to expire.

“It has moved on a lot from being a handful of stranded mid-20-year-olds trapped on working holiday visas,” he said.

Peru

The situation for Irish citizens in Peru was particularly extreme, as a severe military lockdown was announced just hours before it came into force, meaning Irish citizens travelling through Peru had virtually no chance to leave the country on time.

At the weekend, the Peruvian government said that it intended to close all its airports, creating uncertainty about repatriation. But Tánaiste Simon Coveney came out to issue assurances to Irish citizens there, by saying they were working on a solution to charter a plane to Lima.

In its statement today, the Department of Foreign Affairs said:

In cases like Peru, where we have an arrangement in place with Aer Lingus and British Airways for a repatriation flight to go in, internal travel remains heavily restricted and many of our citizens are located hundreds of miles away from the international airport.
We are working 24 hours to get the necessary transport and permissions in place to move them. 

“We are also working very closely with other European countries, especially the UK, to get Irish groups on their flights. We have worked for example with the UK, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands and Spain in getting our citizens home.

“We know this is very stressful for those abroad and their families here but we are leaving no stone unturned in trying to get people home.”

Foreign Affairs resources

The DFA has given the following resources and advice for Irish citizens who are abroad:

“Citizens should contact the nearest Embassy or Consulate to update them on their situation and they should closely follow information provided on the Embassy Twitter account. They are providing as much factual and practical information as possible.

“Any Irish citizen who believes that an Embassy may not be aware of their presence should register online and email their contact information (full names, email addresses and contact phone numbers). Contact details for all our missions can be found here.

“Irish citizens looking for urgent assistance should call our COVID-19 phone line, +353 (0) 1 6131733, which operates from 7am to 10pm every day, or they can use our web chat facility at https://dfa.ie/travel/contact/. We also recommend continuing to monitor our website and social media updates from @dfatirl, @dfatravelwise, and the account of the relevant Embassy or Consulate.”

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Gráinne Ní Aodha

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