Coronavirus: Indian students seek refuge within UK mission premises

Aditi Khanna

London, Mar 22 (PTI) A group of 19 Indian students has sought refuge within the premises of the Indian High Commission in London overnight on Saturday, demanding that they be put on a flight to India despite the travel restrictions in place following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The group of students, mostly from Telangana, have refused offers of alternate accommodation arranged with the help of Indian diaspora groups as India's ban on travellers from the UK and Europe remains in place until the end of this month.

“The Indian community has tried to help them and initially it was a group of 59 students, 40 of whom have been allocated alternative accommodation but the remaining 19 are being completely unreasonable and refuse to move,” said a community leader, who has been working with the High Commission on arrangements for the stranded students.

Many of them had flights booked back to India for later this month, in time for what is usually an Easter break period at universities in the UK. However, India issued an updated travel advisory earlier this week to say that no travellers would be allowed entry into India after 1200 GMT on March 18 until March 31.

“There simply are no flights and we cannot be putting lives in danger at this stage. They were allowed entry into the High Commission building and provided food, water and temporary shelter, but they are now just camping out with their bags and baggage,” he said.

The students have been placed within a quarantined space, which houses the visa and consular section within the Indian High Commission building in Aldwych, central London.

It had triggered a last-minute dash for flights as many students took to social media to seek assistance from the Indian High Commission as their travel plans went awry in the wake of the rapid spread of the pandemic.

The Indian mission has introduced an online registry system and has also shared contact information for a number of Indian diaspora groups trying to assist with board and lodging for panic-stricken students and Indian nationals.

“I am an Indian Citizen, currently in Newcastle, United Kingdom on student visa. My visa expires on March 24, 2020. I was to travel back to India on March 23, 2020 and all the flights are being cancelled due to the COVID-19 as per Indian rule. What should I do,” wrote one student in an appeal to the High Commission.

Such students are being advised to seek assistance from the UK Home Office's Coronavirus Immigration Helpline. Meanwhile, the Home Office has said it recognises the current situation is “exceptional” and will not take any compliance action against students or employees who are unable to attend their studies or work due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK (NISAU-UK), a representative body for Indian students in the UK, has been fielding calls and urging students not to panic, support each other and take necessary precautions to be safe.

As the UK went into complete shutdown from Saturday, universities across the UK have said they are mindful of the plight of international students, many of whom have nowhere to go as campuses close down.

Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan said: “I am pleased Universities UK has confirmed institutions will be flexible and do all they can to support students to progress to higher education.” According to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker, the death toll from the virus globally has risen to 13,044 with 307,104 cases reported 171 countries and territories.

As of Saturday, there are 5,018 confirmed cases in the UK and 233 people have died due to the deadly coronavirus that first emerged in China's Wuhan city last year. PTI AK AMS AKJ AMS