The fates of hundreds of South Africans trapped in Thailand hang in the balance as they wait with bated breath for government to bring them home. But for now, they live on the streets, in airports and rely on the kindness of others to be fed.
There are close to 300 citizens scattered across Thailand. Chronic medication supplies are running out and locals ostracise them as “filthy foreigners who brought the coronavirus to Thailand”.
Citizens were assembled into WhatsApp groups administrated by the Home Away from Home project launched by the DA’s Shadow Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Darren Bergman.
“It was launched on March 26 for citizens stranded abroad due to government regulations resulting in the complete shutdown of the country’s airspace. We work as a third party between citizens and the department of international relations and cooperation (DIRCO). It is non-political, if it was political we would have never gotten as far as we did.”
Charné Cloete from Cape Town is stranded in Phuket, Thailand. Video: Supplied
The project sought to find stranded citizens and lobby for their return.
“Initially, the campaign was aimed at asking national government to revise their policy to ensure repatriation. After two weeks of lockdown, our project grew substantially and as it stands is in contact with over 3 000 South Africans across 133 countries around the world.”
But Bergman said they believed most if not all citizens stranded abroad had been captured in their databases and therefore closed the databases to new entries on Friday evening.
"These are uncertain times. As the lockdown continues, the economy will take strain and repatriation processes will take longer."
But Mario Boffa, from Cape Town, who is trapped in Bangkok for over a month, believed Bergman is politicising the issue and used the project to grow in popularity.
"Other than capturing information in databases he has done nothing to help us."
Resulting in Boffa and other citizens taking it upon themselves to charter a flight at the personal expense of R9 million to bring 263 citizens home.
“We pooled our money and some people were willing to help others who couldn’t afford the flight but ultimately the plan never took off. All we needed was clearance from our government which never came. We have tried everything but we are still here.”
Meanwhile, DIRCO Minister Naledi Pandor said 307 citizens were in Thailand with some in Bali in a radio interview on 702 earlier this week.
“We ask for patience. I understand the frustration but we are doing the best we can. I understand that there would be areas where we could be failing but this is a difficult situation where communication and travel arrangements are not simple. But I assure you that every effort is being made.”
Pandor reiterated that not every citizen would be repatriated, but only holidaymakers and those working on a short-term basis and could not return before March 26.
She said citizens from Germany, Portugal and Ireland were expected to be repatriated during the course of this weekend.
But on Thursday evening President Cyril Ramaphosa pleaded for the nation “to make even greater sacrifices so that our country may survive this crisis and so that tens of thousands of lives may be saved.”
The national lockdown intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus was extended by an additional two weeks.
This broke the spirits of Yashtha Lutchminarain and her fiancé Visham Maharaj, both from Tongaat, who planned to return home from Bangkok on April 16 when the lockdown was originally expected to end.
“I was crushed when the extension was made because what happens to us? We see other countries taking back their people and South Africa is repatriating other citizens but why not us? Are we not important?”.
The couple has languished in Bangkok for three weeks. They lost money spent on return flights in their R18 000 per person holiday packages and on Saturday lost their accommodation.
“We are desperate and are hunting for new and cheap accommodation. There is a language barrier and everything is closed. There is now an evening curfew from 10pm. It has gradually gotten stricter and it feels like the country will totally shut down.”
Kirsty Robinson, her husband Grant and toddler sons Luke, 5, and Jaime, 2, are close to R20 000 over budget and face financial ruin.
The family, originally from KwaZulu-Natal now living in Johannesburg, planned to wait out the lockdown and then fly home from Phuket.
“But we were told Phuket International Aiport was closed from April 10 to 30 so we went to Bangkok on April 8 hoping to fly home on April 16. But the lockdown extension killed that dream. Jaime will celebrate his third birthday (April 16) in a foreign country under lockdown.”
Quintin Thomas, his sister Bronwyn and her husband Mark Hollow also planned to return home on April 16.
“We have three paid return flight tickets for April 16 with Qatar Airlines. It is still operating but our country is not allowing air space to be opened for them. Our options are to cancel and get a partial refund or keep our booking and change flight dates. But government said people can come home if they have paid return flights so we are waiting and hoping for the best.”