SAUDI Arabia has begun making plans to repatriate as many as 11,600 Nigerians stranded in the country by the coronavirus lockdown who have been unable to leave due to the closure of aviation facilities.
Nigeria has the seventh number of hajj pilgrims in the world, with numbers totalling between 65,000 and 80,00 annually. This year, however, many of these pilgrims got stuck in Saudi Arabia, ending up being stranded after the suspension of international travel and the closure of airports.
With the lockdown now being gradually eased globally, Saudi Arabia is making plans to airlift the Nigerians back home. One Nigerian embassy official, said the Saudi authorities have already written to them about the plans, pointing out that most of those affected will be pilgrims who had visited the country for umrah, the lesser hajj and were held up by the movement restrictions.
Geoffrey Onyeama, Nigeria’s foreign minister, confirmed the development, adding that
some of the stranded Nigerians would have landed about a week ago but that the country does not have enough facilities to accommodate them all for the 14-day quarantine period. He added that now that Nigeria’s isolation unit capacity has been expanded, there is room to accommodate the returnees.
Mr Onyeama said: “In fact, they wanted to land last week but they couldn’t because there was no arrangement to receive them. The medical people have to monitor them for two weeks for quarantine but there is only a certain number of port health authority staff who are able to monitor all these people as they come in.”
“As the secretary to the federal government said, we have to finish the ones we have, then allow some more to come in. We can’t allow everybody to come in because we don’t have the capacity to house them and also to monitor them medically.”
Apparently, the Saudis noted that only 340 Nigerians have indicated their willingness to return home, so they have asked for the embassy’s cooperation in the search for the remaining 11,260. Eager to get rid of the Nigerians, the Saudi authorities have said they will be responsible for airlifting all of them.
According to Mr Onyeama, this 11,600 includes Nigerians who are illegally living in the kingdom without having necessary documents. It is believed that among them will even be students studying in Saudi Arabia.