Stranded Sri Lankans Leave Baku with Eleventh Hour Help from IOM

Posted: 
09/11/20
Themes: 
IOM

Baku/ Colombo Midnight in late summer at Baku’s gleaming airport. Dozens of migrants from Sri Lanka have gathered, some pacing in the heat, some smoking nervously, other glancing at their phones.  

When the people in IOM vests came into view their mood relaxed. A buzz of happy conversation broke out as they were handed the vital certificates of a negative test result for COVID-19, and masks and gloves that they needed in order to board their flight home. 

This group of 69 mainly students and their family members had been stranded in Azerbaijan since March due to border closures under the nationwide lockdown necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic.  

Unable to work, ineligible for government aid afforded to nationals and unsure when, or whether their universities and colleges would re-open – they decided to return. But back in Sri Lanka, families were hard hit and could not provide support. 

“The economic situation in my country is also difficult and it is unlikely that soon my parents will be able to help me cover my tuition fees, living expenses, and accommodation in another country,” said one student, who asked to remain nameless. 

The group was nominally led by Anuruddha Pathirathne. He ran a successful business in Azerbaijan, importing tea and spices from the homeland. Then the coronavirus ruined everything.  

“I cannot continue my business and until this time could not go back because borders are closed,” he said. “Right now, the only way to leave the country is to fly to Turkey. So, we decided to take this chance.”  

Anuruddha revealed that after the migrants had spent the last of their money to purchase flight tickets, they learned only passengers with a certificate of negative COVID-19 test issued within 48 hours of departure would be allowed to board the flight.  

Since we had to remain at home for months during the quarantine period and those who earned money could not go to work, most are in dire financial state and could not cover the cost of the test, Anuruddha explained.  

Their recourse was to contact their embassy in neighboring Iran. That was when IOM entered the picture. The Embassy got in touch with IOM’s Azerbaijan office to seek help.  

“The situation was worsened by the fact that Sri Lanka does not have an embassy in Azerbaijan to help them,” Ilyas Nabiyev, IOM’s Project Coordinator explained, adding that IOM Azerbaijan made an agreement with one of the local designated clinics to conduct rapid PCR tests and get the results within hours. 

“It was necessary to conduct PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests and sort out the immigration matters for Sri Lankans within a very short timeframe prior to the departure, since many had already purchased flight tickets, and without the certificates they would not have been allowed on board.”  

Thanks to the well-coordinated work of IOM staff and impeccable cooperation with the Azerbaijan authorities who rapidly issued travel documents, all the stranded migrants returned home safely. 

Now they are in a state quarantine facility for the mandatory 14-day quarantine period. 

Anuruddha said that despite having to stay in the facility, they are happy to be back and will soon reunite with their families.  

“We feel at home again, happy to be with family and friends,” he said. “I have lived in Azerbaijan for a long time and I love that country. My wife is in Azerbaijan and I will back soon.” 

The assistance was delivered to the Sri Lankan citizens as part of IOM’s regional project on humanitarian assistance to stranded/vulnerable migrants (foreign nationals) in the South Caucasian countries, funded by the United States Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). 

For further information please contact Ilgar Khudiyev at IOM Azerbaijan, Mobile: +994(0)50 319 66 80, Email:ixudiyev@iom.intOr Joe Lowry at IOM Vienna, Mobile: + 43 660 3776404, Email: jlowry@iom.int 

  • Stranded Sri Lankan migrants receive certificates to prove that they are Coronavirus-free and fit to fly out of Baku Airport. Photo: IOM/Ilqar Xudiyev

  • Performing PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests to enable stranded Sri Lankan migrants to leave Azerbaijan. Photo: IOM/Ilqar Xudiyev

  • Temperature checks at the state quarantine facility in Sri Lanka. Photo: © Anuruddha Pathirathne