Tens of thousands of British nationals are feared stranded in Pakistan, according to the shadow minister Emily Thornberry, as more than 75 MPs demanded action in a letter sent to the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab.
Thornberry, a former shadow foreign secretary and now shadow international trade secretary, has been collecting data from Labour MPs who have been deluged with calls and emails from constituents. She has given Raab a detailed plan of action the party wants to see urgently enacted.
Her letter comes amid growing anger that the UK’s £75m airlift operation has resulted in charter flights to Peru, India, South Africa and Nepal but not Pakistan.
Osman Riaz, 33-year-old trauma surgeon at Pindersfield general hospital in Wakefield, is among those trying to get back.
He said he feels that Britons of Pakistani heritage are “being classed as second class citizens”, after being unable to obtain a return flight despite numerous calls to the embassy in Islamabad.
“I really hope the British government get their act together and start treating British citizens in Pakistan as equals to their counterparts in India,” he said.
A businessman willing to charter a plane with landing rights and logistical support is said to have offered his support.
Sam Tarry, the Labour MP for South Ilford, has spoken to him and said the offer had so far gone unheeded by the Foreign Office.
With dozens of other Labour MPs, incl. @JeremyCorbyn, @HackneyAbbott, @AngelaRayner, @JonAshworth, @BarryGardiner, @GwynneMP, @NazShahBfd, @Afzal4Gorton & @RupaHuq, I’ve written to Dominic Raab setting out the action needed for tens of 1000s of UK nationals stranded in Pakistan. pic.twitter.com/3SmTokGZIb— Emily Thornberry (@EmilyThornberry) April 3, 2020
Thornberry’s letter to Raab, also signed by Jeremy Corbyn, the new deputy leader Angela Rayner and 73 other MPs, spoke of those who “desperately need to get home to access their essential medicines and self-isolate safely”.
“Many of these nationals are elderly, vulnerable and suffer from critical underlying conditions,” it said.
It expressed “concern that the high commission in Pakistan is not adopting examples of best practice that we have seen from other embassies around the world”, a reference to the immediate efforts made by countries such as Germany and France to evacuate citizens when travel restrictions started to be imposed around the world from the middle of March.
Businessman Syed Ahmed, a former director of UK Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, has offered to send an Airbus 340 with landing rights and logistical support.
Tarry said trying to mount a private charter was “a drastic measure” but it seemed a team of private entrepreneurs “ will be forced to act where the government has failed”.
The FCO said charter flights were being prioritised for citizens in countries where borders were closed and as Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) was still able to fly from the country, efforts were being directed towards the commercial option.
It said 1,000 Britons had returned to the UK last week on four PIA flights with eight more scheduled this week.
In relation to the offer of a charter flight it said the issue was not getting aircraft but the FCO settling on a strategy involving charter flights for countries where no other options existed.
However, those left behind have blamed an “appalling” lack of communication and transparency by the FCO for stress and loss of funds as passengers scramble to get on to PIA flights which are then cancelled.
Others say the government should not be outsourcing project management of emergency repatriation to an airline.
Shazia Ejaz, whose elderly parents are stranded after their flights on 23 March were cancelled, said: “These are elderly people who have paid tax all their lives and never relied on the government for anything and the one time they need them the FCO lets them down, but can help backpackers in Peru which you can imagine are not the most vulnerable.”
Farhan Mirza, a 35-year-old research scientist whose mother is stranded said: “I’m really disgusted by the way Mum’s been treated. The FCO seem to think everyone stuck over there is a dual national and therefore not entitled to repatriation as in other countries, so we need to explore commercial options.”
His mother, Naseem, a 60-year-old social worker from Buckinghamshire, went to Pakistan on 10 March after her sister passed away only to discover her return flight had been cancelled. She has been diagnosed with low blood platelets and has said that if she is infected with coronavirus in Pakistan, she would not recover.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, promised an announcement on charter flights by the end of last week, but the information was disclosed on social media and on an update to the government website making it difficult to find for those who don’t use Twitter of Facebook or those who do not look at the gov.uk website.
The update said it had organised charter flights to Bolivia, Ecuador, Philippines and India with Norwegian, TUI and Ryanair joining the list or airlines involved.
The FCO has been approached for comment.