350,000 EU citizens stranded by virus flown home

Some 350,000 EU citizens trapped overseas by the coronavirus epidemic have been flown home, officials said Thursday, warning that 250,000 were still stranded, including the most difficult cases.

The EU has been helping member states and some neighbouring non-member countries including Britain, Norway and Iceland get travellers where their return flights have been cancelled because of the pandemic.

The bloc has set up a special team within its civil protection arm to deal with repatriations as airlines around the world cancel huge numbers of flights amid and collapsing passenger numbers.

A senior EU official said that since the crisis began a total of 600,000 EU citizens had appealed for help getting home, either through their embassies or EU missions overseas.

"Out of those 600,000, about 350,000 were able to come back... leaving roughly 250,000 EU citizens outside Europe," the official told journalists in a briefing on condition of not being identified.

Returns have mostly been on or charters by national governments, with only around one in 10 on special services operated by the EU's crisis management unit.

In one example, the Belgian government has carried out 25 repatriation flights to ferry people home, in particular Belgian-Moroccans stuck in Morocco.

The EU team has been coordinating efforts between member states and has drawn up a list of 25 problem countries rated with a traffic-light system according to how complex it is to get travellers back from them.

The official said the remaining 250,00 included "more difficult repatriations, in more difficult countries or tightening circumstances".

"Just because we are halfway down the number doesn't mean we're halfway down the effort," the official warned.

Part of the EU effort has been to persuade countries to keep airspace and transit hubs open to enable travellers to get home.

EU foreign ministers will hold video talks on Friday to discuss the international aspect of the crisis, in particular what can be done to help poorer countries cope with the epidemic, which has killed nearly 50,000 people around the world.

They fear that quelling the virus in Europe will not be enough if it continues to rage elsewhere in the world.

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© 2020 AFP

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