Greater Manchester residents are stranded abroad with no money or a place to stay due to a lack of flights and coronavirus-related travel restrictions.
Amongst those stranded is Rochdale’s own Mohammed Sheraz, former Mayor Consort and a key local community figure.
Sheraz, who has been away from home for around four months, had been working on youth exchanges in Istanbul at the start of the year, before undertaking the Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. He then visited relatives in Pakistan, where he has been since 11 March – with no way to get home.
He told Rochdale Online: “I came to visit my grandma. We’ve been housebound and observing all of the requirements. Everything is shut, only essential shops are open. Nobody is allowed out.
“We had no warning from the airlines and there was no grace. There are around fifty to sixty people from Rochdale who are stranded over here, if not more, and the airlines are charging over £900 for tickets just to get back to the UK.”
Sheraz says he had been on hold when phoning the British Embassy for over an hour before the signal drops and loses the call, and the currency exchanges are closed, so people can’t send money to their relatives.
He said: “I feel sorry for the elderly and vulnerable; they’ve got medicine supplies running out. Those that have special baby milk for their children only have so much, but we are trying to help and support each other and keep morale up.”
“I’m okay here with grandma, but you can’t help but think about the elderly and most vulnerable.”
The Greater Manchester region’s mayor, Andy Burnham, has been contacted by several people who are stuck in Australia and Asia.
Describing the issue as ‘fast developing’, he called on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to provide
‘immediate assistance’ to those in a ‘dangerous situation’.
Speaking at a press conference for the Greater Manchester COVID-19 emergency committee, Mr Burnham said: “We’ve received a number of reports of people who are stranded abroad with no accommodation or finances.
“They’re struggling to access flights either because there are no flights, or they’ve become extremely expensive.”
Mr Burnham was unable to provide an approximate figure for those from Greater Manchester struggling to get home, but he said the number of people that had contacted him ‘is in the tens at least’.
He added: “I would guess that this is the top of the iceberg, and we’re in urgent discussions with the FCO.
“My worry is these people are in a very, very vulnerable position and we need to get a solution for them. This needs to be addressed very quickly indeed.”
A total of 80 countries have placed restrictions on their borders, a situation described as ‘unprecedented’ by foreign secretary Dominic Raab.
Having advised against all but essential travel globally last week, he changed the government advice again because of the rate of restrictions.
In a speech to the House of Commons, Mr Raab said: “We strongly advise those British people who are currently travelling abroad but live in the UK to return as soon as possible, where they are still able to because commercial routes are still running.
“Where commercial options are limited or prevented by domestic restrictions, we are in close contact with the airlines and local authorities in those countries to overcome those barriers to enable people to return home.”