DUBAI - Pakistan has started repatriating some of its citizens from the United Arab Emirates, which had threatened to review labor ties with countries refusing to take back their nationals during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The first Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight carrying 227 "stranded passengers" from Dubai and other emirates left for Islamabad on Saturday evening, Pakistan's consulate general in Dubai said in a Twitter post.
More flights would depart the UAE from Monday to April 28, Sayed Zulfiqar Bukhari, a special assistant to Pakistan’s prime minister, said on Twitter. More than 40,000 Pakistanis in the Gulf Arab state have registered with the consulate to return home, two UAE newspapers reported.
The UAE and other Gulf states have reported increased infections among low-income migrant workers who live in overcrowded quarters. Some have moved to re-house them in shuttered schools or dedicated centers, and are trying to arrange flights to repatriate them. On Sunday, the UAE announced 479 new cases and four more deaths, bringing its total to 6,781 cases and 41 deaths.
This year's Arabian Travel Market, a major regional tourism fair in Dubai that had already been rescheduled to June from April, was cancelled. The exhibition center in which it was set to take place is being used as a hospital to treat patients with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.
The UAE said last week it would review labor relations with states refusing to evacuate citizens, including those who have lost jobs or been put on leave, after the ambassadors of India and Pakistan said their countries were not yet ready to do so.
PIA said on its website that it would not be able to provide services for inbound flights beyond Islamabad International Airport because of the suspension of domestic flights and a lockdown in the country.
Millions of foreign workers, many from Asia, form the backbone of Gulf economies and work in sectors that have been disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak.
The pandemic is also likely to disrupt the significant remittances those workers send back to their home countries.
The total infection count in the six Gulf states has risen steadily to more than 26,600, with 167 deaths, despite containment measures such as halting passenger flights, curfews and in several cases locking down districts with large populations of low-income expatriate workers.
Saudi Arabia, which has the most infections and deaths among Gulf Cooperation Council states, at 9,362 and 97, recorded a record 1,088 new cases in 24 hours. It said 83% of the new confirmed cases were among non-Saudi nationals.
Kuwait's 90-year-old ruler, Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, addressed the nation on Sunday to welcome back the first group of Kuwaitis returned home under a new repatriation program.
He urged them to comply with all isolation and quarantine guidelines given by authorities in the Gulf state, which has recorded seven deaths, including one on Sunday, and almost 2,000 cases of the infection. (Reporting by Alexander Cornwell, Lisa Barrington and Ahmad Hagagy; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Sam Holmes, Alex Richardson and Peter Cooney)