Two weeks after calls to come home, thousands of Canadians are still stranded abroad

·8 min read

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned at the outset of COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions that some Canadians would be stranded abroad. That warning looks like prophecy now for a number of people for whom travel options are becoming increasingly scarce.

Canada issued a blanket non-essential travel advisory on Friday, March 13, telling would-be travellers not to leave the country — that they would risk getting stuck abroad during the pandemic.

The next day, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne encouraged all Canadians in the U.S. and overseas to come home — a call that prompted caravans of snowbirds to make the trip home from sunny destinations like Arizona and Florida.

But travellers in other countries — including those who left well before the advisory was issued — haven't been able to make it home due to severe border restrictions in some countries that have halted the movement of foreigners and locals alike.

After the initial flood of media reports on Canadians stranded in countries where borders were shut with little notice, the federal government has been working with companies like Air Canada and Air Transat to send planes to destinations in Morocco, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru, among others, to repatriate Canadians. Thousands have already headed home.

But demand for transportation back to Canada has exceeded the capacity of even the largest of jumbo jets, while emergency tickets are being snatched up in an instant or snarled by internet connectivity problems in remote locales.

Vancouver-based lawyer Peter Swanson has been stuck in Cusco, Peru, for days. He's been largely confined to his room, with little access to life's necessities beyond the walls of his hotel.

He said he's heard many "horror stories" of people securing tickets on rescue flights only to be told their booking wasn't valid because of a glitch. So far, the rescue flights have been departing the country only from the capital, Lima — but there are several hundred Canadians in Cusco, the city used as a staging ground for hikers climbing Machu Picchu.

The long, winding drive over the Andes to Lima takes 19 hours in normal conditions, but it's impossible in a country where martial law is now in place and domestic travel is nonexistent.

Swanson said he hopes he can catch a Lima-bound flight Friday and a connecting rescue flight to Toronto in the evening.

"I am pretty much never leaving my phone or iPad so I can get online right away," Swanson told CBC News. "It has been a bit of a roller coaster, with a lot of rumour and misinformation on possible efforts to get Canadians from Cusco.

"Sadly, I think there are going to be a number of Canadians stuck here for a while longer."

The Americans already have airlifted stranded travellers from Cusco to Miami. The Israelis also brought their countrymen home days ago on a rented El Al jet.

Submitted by Peter Swanson
Submitted by Peter Swanson

Canadians are waiting anxiously for further instructions from officials who have been swamped with requests for help. In the last two days alone, Global Affairs Canada has fielded 8,907 calls and 25,441 emails at the Emergency Response and Watch Centre in Ottawa from Canadians all over the world.

Emergency response centre swamped

The emergency response centre is more accustomed to helping Canadians with lost passports, or people whose loved ones have died abroad. It's not experienced in organizing a large-scale evacuation of tens of thousands of people trying to outrun a global pandemic.

Given the sheer volume of correspondence, much of the government's communication with Canadians like Swanson has been through social media. Champagne has urged all travellers to register with the Canadians Abroad service so the government knows who's abroad and where they are, and who's ready to go.

"Fellow Canadians in Peru: We continue to work to organize the upcoming flights of Thursday and Friday. Our goal is for the Friday flight to have as many people from Cusco as possible," Ralph Jansen, Canada's ambassador in Peru, tweeted Wednesday.

CBC News
CBC News

Air Canada has been sending special promotional codes to registered email addresses when flights become available. Those codes can be used on their website to book rescue flights. The cost of a one-way ticket home from Peru is about $1,400.

One of the Canadians who will be stuck in Peru for the foreseeable future is Greg Bestavros. He's been in a hostel near Cusco for 11 days and, while conditions have been grim, he said he's hoping to get out soon on a rescue flight.

Now he's been told that won't happen because someone else in the hostel has tested positive for COVID-19 — and the Peruvian government doesn't want anyone entering or leaving the building for the next month or more.

"We're locked down here for a duration of one to three months. This hostel is in a military quarantine," Bestavros said. He faces jail time of up to five years if he tries to leave. He's tried to contact Global Affairs Canada, to no avail.

"There's obviously a very high volume of calls. We've been reaching out to the various numbers that have been provided. At this point we haven't heard back from anyone."

"I wish that [government] action had come swifter, because now we're in a situation where we don't know if we'll be able to make it home," Bestavros said. "We've checked emails, we filled out forms, we've waited for something to happen and our worst fear has come to light now."

'Dog's breakfast'

Global Affairs Canada said it's doing all it can to bring people like Bestavros home but with 419,400 people registered in nearly every country on earth, some inevitably will be left behind.

"We are working to help as many Canadians as possible return home, but some may remain outside of the country for an indeterminate amount of time," the department said in a statement.

The Canadian government has really not got their act together. - Oliver Hartleben

"Canadians that are already outside of Canada or unable to return to Canada should monitor local media and follow local public health advice [on] lockdown or shelter-in-place guidance."

Kurt Egloff, a retired civil servant from Ottawa, has been travelling throughout South America with his wife for months over the winter.

The couple arrived in Lima on the very day the Peruvian president closed the border, ending all commercial flight traffic to points abroad. That lockdown has been extended until April 15. He hasn't been able to get a ticket on any of the three flights that have left the country so far. He only received an Air Canada offer code once.

"The whole process is very tricky, very frustrating," Egloff told CBC News. "They keep saying, 'We can't promise to get everybody back home.' That concerns us."

Egloff said he and his wife are worried about their supply of prescription medications as the days tick by.

Submitted by Peter Swanson
Submitted by Peter Swanson

The government had said it would prioritize certain passengers for rescue flights, especially those more susceptible to COVID-19-related complications. Egloff said he was disappointed to see pictures of the first Lima evacuations involving planes full of young people destined for Canada while some of the more vulnerable were left behind.

Egloff said the booking process for repatriation flights has been a "dog's breakfast," one that privileges the web-savvy. The cost of a ticket home is steep and applying for the government's emergency loan program is cumbersome.

"It's not been very stellar, let's put it that way. Other countries have had a much more efficient, prompt process in place and they were able to bring their people back for free," Egloff said.

Janis Legg is worried about her son, Tyler, who's also in a Cusco hostel with "little social distancing, police on every street corner and very poor communication from the Peruvian and Canadian governments."

Legg said Tyler and other travellers are "frustrated and scared," worried that if they get sick they won't have a way home given Canadian restrictions on symptomatic passengers travelling by plane. Canadians who are sick will be denied boarding and told to seek medical attention in the countries where they are.

Legg said she just wants to know if her son will be safe. "The communication breakdown is catastrophic, given all that today's technology can provide for," she said.

Submitted by Kurt Egloff
Submitted by Kurt Egloff

Some Canadians in other countries, like Guatemala, have given up waiting for the federal government to come to their aid.

Oliver Hartleben had been trying to get his family out of the country for days, with Canadian embassy officials offering bus services to the Mexican border to help travellers find flights home from a country with fewer travel restrictions.

His family made it out of Guatemala on Monday — but only because his daughter is also an American, and they could hitch a ride on an evacuation flight organized by the American embassy on Monday. "The Canadian government has really not got their act together. We heard that the bus they organized to go via land to Mexico never showed up," he said.