ISLAMABAD: Minister for Foreign Affairs Shah Mehmood Qureshi on Monday told a parliamentary panel that around 40,000 Pakistanis were currently stranded in different counties amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
He said that as per data collected by the Foreign Office through its missions abroad, the total number of Pakistanis stranded was 39,748 and a majority of them were in Middle East. He said the number of Pakistanis belonging to Tablighi Jamaat who were stranded abroad was 2,248.
Briefing the parliamentary committee on coronavirus, which met here with National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser in the chair, he said that the government had arranged specials flights to bring stranded Pakistanis back home. They were quarantined first and then sent home after tests, he added. He said the government was committed to bringing all stranded Pakistanis back through special flights.
Mr Qureshi said the next phase of special flights would start on Tuesday (April 14) in which nine flights would bring 2,000 people back home. The flights would land in Lahore, Karachi, Multan, Peshawar and Faisalabad.
Minister for SAFRON Shehryar Khan Afridi, who is also the convener of the sub-committee of the Special Committee, presented a report on its working.
He said representatives of Tablighi Jaamat and Zairean (pilgrims) were taken on board and their verified data was collected. He further said data of Pakistanis stranded abroad and registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) and prisoners released by Oman and the UAE was also acquired from the MoFA. He said as per data received from Tablighi Jamaat, the total number of Jamaat members stranded abroad and in Pakistan were 2,054 and 16,900, respectively, whereas 275 pilgrims were stranded in Iran and 727 in Pakistan in different quarantine facilities.
Mr Afridi said 1,326 pilgrims had returned to their destination, adding that 36,000 Pakistanis were stranded in Dubai, Qatar and Oman. He said the sub-committee was in contact with relevant quarters and would oversee the safe return of everyone to their respective destinations.
While discussing the follow-up progress report on earlier directives of the committee, the secretary for interior apprised the committee that the Ministry of Interior had directed deputy commissioners of districts concerned to make logistic arrangements for those who have tested negative to take them safely back to their home towns as per SoPs developed by the Health Department and the provinces.
The Aviation Division secretary apprised the Committee about the flight operation, saying that only the Islamabad airport was operational and catering for the incoming and outgoing passenger traffic through the special flight operation. He said the Aviation Division had made arrangements through the Pakistan International Airlines to send foreign nationals to their countries and bring stranded Pakistanis back home.
In the next phase other major airports would be made operational.
The executive director of the National Institute of Health (NIH) apprised the Committee that the NIH currently had a capacity of 13,000 to 14,000 coronavirus tests per day. The capacity, he added, would be enhanced to 30,000 tests per day in next few days. He said presently 41 labs were conducting coronavirus tests, adding that the number of labs would also be increased. Tests conducted by the NIH conformed to international standard and reports of the tests were delivered within 48 hours.
Speaker Asad Qaiser said in his opening remarks that due to the spread of coronavirus, problems of stranded members of Tablighi Jamaat, pilgrims and Pakistanis jailed in foreign countries appeared in the media, which were quite disturbing and caused panic amongst the public. He said that in view of the disturbing news of difficulties faced by Pakistanis abroad, he considered it appropriate to form a special committee that would take stock of the situation and find a solution to their problems.
The committee discussed problems of Tablighi Jamaat and pilgrims with their representatives, collected certified data and shared it with departments concerned.
Meanwhile, a uniform policy on religious rituals during Ramazan will be framed after consultations with stakeholders.
A decision to this effect was taken during a meeting between Federal Minister for Interior retired Brig Ijaz Ahmad Shah and Minister for Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Pir Noorul Haq Qadri on Monday. It was decided that religious leaders, scholars and other stakeholders will be taken on board to develop guidelines for precautionary measures during Ramazan.
Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2020