Rescued: The story of 100 stranded Finns, flown home from India

The repatriation effort involved days of planning, and careful coordination to navigate through a country on lockdown.

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Embassy staff help passengers at Delhi Airport / Credit: Finnish Embassy Delhi

Hundreds of stranded Nordic and Baltic travelers have been flown home from India in an operation lead by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with Finnair and diplomats in Delhi.

When the A350 took off from Goa on Wednesday, and another left Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport on Thursday morning, more than 650 passengers from across the region were heading home.

But the flights were just the final part of a journey that involved a specially-coordinated convoys of buses and embassy escorts, to break through the local lockdown rules and coronavirus travel restrictions that sealed the borders of India’s 29 states.

“For the Delhi flight we needed to gather all Nordic and Baltic travelers in northern India around Delhi and up toward the Himalayas” explains Nelli Mikkola, a diplomat at the Finnish Embassy in Delhi.

“After a rather massive mapping operation with the other embassies, we rented six big buses, which all went to different routes, accompanied by one diplomatic car, one country responsible for one bus” she says.

Finnish passengers getting on buses in Northern India / Credit: Finnish Embassy

The convoys needed special permits to get through the checkpoints, and also to travel through cities – the only way for passengers to get to the airport.

“The Indian Government has been very cooperative. The rules for movement, however, are strict and the practices vary a bit from state to state. In some states we have been able to assist passengers by organising curfew passes for them from the Indian authorities in order to ensure safe and unhindered travel to the point of departure” says Mikkola.

Passengers from Goa had faced their own problems in the lead-up to the repatriation flights, with the lockdown impacting supply chains so that food, water and medicine were initially in short supply.

European Union missions in India raised the issue with the State of Goa asking for assistance, which helped to ease the situation. Helplines were also established by the local authorities for citizens and travelers to call if they needed some help.

Stranded passengers wait for a Finnair flight at Delhi Airport / Credit: Finnish Embassy Delhi

India’s sudden lockdown

The sudden nationwide lockdown by the Indian Government to help prevent the spread of coronavirus came as a shock to many of the foreign travelers there – and while about a hundred Finns did opt to leave, or were able to buy a ticket for the most recent flights, there are others who decided to stay, or who will try to make it out on later flights.

“The typical traveler in India is one who is staying a bit longer, and many had been here well before the coronavirus situation peaked globally. The Finnish government and we have been strongly advising travelers to return home due to the current situation. But because of the population and local conditions, India had to do a drastic lockdown decision quickly, and travelers didn’t have that much time to react” explains Nelli Mikkola.

The Finnish Embassy has been in touch with people who filed a travel notification to the Foreign Ministry, and giving as much advice as possible on social media channels, trying to reach out to Finns who might be stuck, and might want to get home.

“It’s also challenging in terms of of people’s whereabouts in this massive country. We have Finnish travelers also in other cities and it is our priority to get them home as well” says Mikkola.

“Here we cooperate closely with other EU and Nordic countries and solidarity is key. Finns have been able to return also with repatriation flights organised by other countries.”

Finnish passengers getting on buses in Northern India / Credit: Finnish Embassy Delhi

Advice from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs: At the moment, we urge anyone travelling abroad to submit a travel notification to enable the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Embassies to know your location and contact you in order to inform e.g. about potential flight connections. You can visit matkustusilmoitus.fi also while abroad and submit your travel details there. If you do not know how to do that, ask a friend or a family member in Finland to fill in the details on your behalf. Remember to update your details after you have returned to Finland, so we do not unnecessarily try to contact you abroad.