Over 120 British nationals, many of them of Turkish Cypriot descent, are currently stranded in North Cyprus, unable to get any flights back to the UK. All international flights on both sides of the Cyprus divide were grounded In March to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
In the same month, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced an “unprecedented” £75 million airlift operation to rescue hundreds of thousands of British nationals stranded abroad. The rescue, he said, would rely heavily on chartering flights to “priority countries” and buying “affordable seats” on commercial airlines.
In his 30 March statement, Mr Raab said: “Where commercial flights are no longer running the government will provide financial support for special charter flights to bring UK nationals back at home.”
That support has yet to be extended to British nationals stuck in North Cyprus, who grow anxious about their fate. They have tried the local authorities in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), the commercial airlines that fly to Cyprus, and the British High Commission, all to no avail.
Not surprisingly, diplomatic pressure on Mr Raab to intervene and repatriate British subjects on humanitarian grounds is growing day-by-day.
Mr Raab is currently heading up the Government in the absence of the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has recently been admitted into intensive care as a result of contracting Coronavirus.
During his ‘address to the nation’ on 6 April, Mr Raab again assured the public that the UK was “working with other governments and the airlines to bring home as many stranded British nationals as we possibly can, prioritising our most vulnerable citizens”.
But those words ring hollow to those who are trying to arrange charter flights to repatriate Britons stranded in the TRNC, whose return is currently blocked, bizarrely, by Britain.
The lack of political recognition for the TRNC means other than from Turkey, there are no direct flights to the northern part of the island. All international flights to and from Ercan Airport, in North Cyprus, must touchdown in Turkey, in accordance with ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) rules.
Compounding matters still further, since 2017 the UK has insisted that passengers from Ercan must disembark in Turkey for a (spurious) additional security check. Turkey has obliged with this measure, but due to the pandemic, it no longer allows passengers to disembark or they must be quarantined for 14 days.
There have been valiant efforts by a number of individuals, who are all lobbying strongly to help facilitate the repatriation and overcome what seems to many as absurd political obstacles.
Muhammet Yasarata, the owner of award-winning tour operator business Cyprus Paradise, has already arranged four charter flights to repatriate TRNC citizens. He has now taken up the baton and is determined to bring back Brits stranded in North Cyprus.
He is calling for the temporary suspension of the disembarkation rule on humanitarian grounds so that 133 British and foreign nationals can return to London. There are people who have run out of medicine or money, a father who needs to return to his pregnant wife and three children, and council workers whose livelihoods are on the line after a lengthy, unplanned absence.
Co-ordinating the repatriation effort is the Council of Turkish Cypriot Associations in Britain (CTCA UK). As with the TRNC repatriations, CTCA has been instrumental in collating the details of the stranded persons and passing these to Cyprus Paradise to process. Those in need of repatriation to Britain should contact the tour operator immediately to add themselves to the list of passengers.
But they can’t go any further until the UK lifts its disembarkation rule. And with the TRNC set to close its entire airspace for at least the next month to reduce the risk of contagion, those stranded in North Cyprus may be trapped for the foreseeable future.
The stranded Britons have called on their MPs to make representations to the Foreign Minister Dominic Raab to urgently act. We need your help too.
If you are on Twitter please tweet Mr Raab @DominicRaab and Wendy Morton @morton_wendy, the Minister for European Neighbourhood & the Americas. Use #SoSNorthCyprus so we amplify the message that we need to get our family members home!
Main photo, top, official portrait of the Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, © Richard Townshend, Wikipedia / CC By 3.0
T-VINE columnist Fevzi Hussein is a trade unionist and media commentator. He is a member of the Labour Party, and a Chair of GMB Race & a CWU policy advisor.