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Arab Students in India Are Stranded by the Country’s New Covid-19 Crisis

After a sharp increase in Covid-19 cases in India, many Arab students on academic scholarships to Indian universities are unable to leave the country and face harsh living conditions there.

The repeated shutdowns of universities have caused many of the Arab students in India to experience delays in completing their studies, and global concerns about the new, more-contagious variants of the virus that are in part responsible for the devastating surge of cases in India make it difficult for them to return to home countries that also face difficult conditions. Moreover, many of the world’s airports are now closed to passengers coming from India.

“The situation is very bad and the smell of corpses fills the streets,” said Assim Anwar, a Sudanese master’s degree student in electronic engineering at Andhra University, a public institution in Andhra Pradesh state, in southern India. “Students got infected and the number of cases surged dramatically. As a result, the university closed its doors, the exams were postponed, and we are stuck here.”

For Arab students in India, the situation is disturbingly similar to the distress faced by Arab students in China during the early days of the pandemic more than a year ago. (See a related article, “Arab Students Trapped in China by Coronavirus Outbreak.”)

There are no recent reliable statistics of the number of Arab students in India, but some students say there are more than 10,000 of them. Most of them are in various stages of obtaining master’s and doctoral degrees, according to government scholarship programs. In 2019, there were 8,000 students from Arab countries, including 1,900 from Sudan and 1,500 from Yemen, according to an Indian newspaper. The Iraqi embassy in India says there are about 3,000 Iraqi students, most of them studying at their own expense.

“We launched  a campaign to demand that the Sudanese government quickly evacuate students stranded in India, as most countries did. … We have not received a response yet.”

Assim Anwar
A Sudanese master’s degree student in electronic engineering at Andhra University

Since the pandemic began, India has recorded more than 22 million cases of Covid-19, along with daily infection rates that hit more than 400,000 cases in early May, and more than 250,000 people have died of the coronavirus. Health experts believe that the actual numbers are much higher than the official figures.

University Decisions Criticized

Anwar, the Sudanese student, blames university regulations as a factor contributing to this surge in infections. “The system stipulates that a student infected with coronavirus is considered absent from the exam and must repeat it next year,” he said. “This has driven many ill students to hide their infection and thus increase the spread of the epidemic on campuses.”

While some universities have approved e-learning, many of them still require students to attend practical lessons, especially in scientific disciplines.

“So far, many students have been infected and some have died in this wave,” said Ali Salem, an Iraqi medical biochemistry Ph.D. student at Shivaji University, in Kolhapur, a city in western India. “We are committed to quarantine measures inside the university housing, but the Indian people who work are not committed to the procedures, leaving us in a state of panic, besides the fact that the city is under complete lockdown.”

Students complain about their universities’ poor communication with them, and their governments’ neglect of their demands for support and evacuation.

“We launched a campaign to demand that the Sudanese government quickly evacuate students stranded in India, as most countries did,” said Anwar. He noted that travel was previously made via the United Arab Emirates, but the Emirates suspended flights from India.

“We ask our government to provide direct flights even if we bear the cost,” he added, “but we have not received a response yet.”

Arab Students in India
After seeming to have Covid-19 infections under control last year, India is now experiencing the world’s worst outbreak. Above, a woman participates in a coronavirus awareness project (Photo: Flickr).

In turn, Salem confirmed that he and his many Iraqi colleagues had contacted the Iraqi embassy to demand a speedy evacuation from India, but they were told that the priority now is for the sick.

“Some people suggested traveling at their expense,” he said, “but the ticket prices hit $900, compared to $300 before the crisis.”

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In a phone call, Falah Al-Saadi, the Iraqi ambassador to India, confirmed the embassy’s keenness to evacuate all those wishing to return, but with priorities.

“We have a directive from the Prime Minister to evacuate all stranded people in India while following health requirements not to transfer the Indian Covid-19 variant to Iraq,” he said. “We are serious about evacuating the stranded people while protecting the Iraqi interior from the new variant as well.”

Deportation Threat for Yemeni Students

While Sudanese and Iraqi students are demanding their governments to quickly evacuate them from India, Yemeni students cannot demand that due to the difficult conditions in their home country. (See two related articles: “Yemen: Chaos, War and Higher Education” and “Yemeni Students Are Caught in a Currency Exchange Trap.”)

“We have colleagues whose family residency permits have expired and they cannot renew them and are at risk of deportation.”

Salem Al-Hakimi  
A Yemeni doctoral student in pharmaceutical sciences at Delhi University

“The city is under a complete lockdown,” said Salem Al-Hakimi, a Yemeni doctoral student in pharmaceutical sciences at Delhi University. More than 20 faculty members and students have died, he said, and the university has established quarantine centers on campus to secure medical care for professors, students and employees.

“The situation is terrible,” he added, “but we do not have the luxury of asking [our country] to return.”

A number of Yemeni students are at risk of deportation due to the near expiry of their residency permits.

“We have colleagues whose family residency permits have expired and they cannot renew them and are at risk of deportation,” al-Hakimi said.

Khaled Al-Wasabi, Yemen’s Minister of Higher Education, confirmed to Al-Fanar Media that his ministry was seeking to support students in India, but admitted that this was difficult.

“We are doing our best to ensure the safety of our students,” Al-Wasabi said. “We are keen to send allowances to students as soon as financial resources are available, but the country is facing a financial crisis.”


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