Indian student groups in the UK on Wednesday urged the Indian government to consider emergency travel options in extremely exceptional cases during the current suspension of air travel imposed contain a fast-spreading mutant strain of coronavirus detected in Britain.
As the Union Civil Aviation ministry announced that the suspension will be extended by another week until January 7, the groups sought some emergency intervention after being contacted by individuals desperate to get to India due to a family crisis or bereavement.
"I hope this time emergency travel arrangements can be made for Indian travellers with a family member critically ill or just passed away. I've seen first-hand the plight of those unable to travel due to bans -- another just last week," said Sanam Arora, Chair of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union UK (NISAU-UK), a representative group for Indian students in the UK.
"I'm in desperate need of help for flying to India from the UK. My mom is very critical and it is imperative for me to (be) able to fly to Bangalore," said Netal, one of those affected, in a Twitter plea to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and other senior Indian ministers.
"Urging MEA India to please help!!! There have to (be) exceptions to the rule," she said.
NISAU-UK has also issued an advisory for Indian students hoping to start an academic term in the New Year and confirmed that under UK Home Office rules, their applicability for the new Graduate or post-study work visa will not be impacted adversely.
"If students are required to either continue their current studies or commence a new course by distance or blended learning due to COVID-19, they will still be eligible to switch into the Graduate route on a concessionary basis if they spent some time studying outside the UK," the advisory notes.
"Students who are completing their course in summer 2021, including those who commenced a one-year Masters programme in September 2020, will benefit from this concession if they enter the UK on or before April 6, 2021 and complete the final semester of their studies in the UK," it adds.
While a majority of Indian students had managed to fly out of the UK for what is a customary Christmas and New Year holiday period, a handful of them were caught out by the cancellation of the India-UK air bubble arrangement from December 22 after England recorded a worrying spike in coronavirus cases as a result of a new highly-transmissible variant of the deadly virus.
"As per our analysis, around 70-78 per cent of students who had planned to go to India for Christmas break had already left for India before December 22. The remaining students, till date, are not reporting any serious concerns due to the travel ban or a possible extension," said Prerit Souda, spokesperson for the Indian National Students Association (INSA) UK.
"Students who were planning to return to the UK for January intake or next-session are taking a wait and watch approach with possible travel by mid or late January if the travel ban is removed. There have been two cases that have come to our attention wherein a family crisis had created a need for emergency travel. We have passed on these cases to relevant authorities," he said.
The Indian High Commission in London said that it is on standby for any "emergency visa" requirements. However, organising flights during a travel ban will prove a challenge for anyone desperate to travel to India.
Meanwhile, the UK Home Office updated its visa advisory on December 23 to confirm that anyone concerned about overstaying their UK visa during the current air travel suspension can apply for an "exceptional assurance" by email.
"If you intend to leave the UK but have not been able to do so and you have a visa or leave that expires between December 1, 2020 and January 31, 2021 you may request additional time to stay, known as 'exceptional assurance''," the Home Office said.
"We are considering all requests and we will contact you to let you know the outcome as soon as we can. During this time, you will not be treated as an overstayer or suffer any detriment in any future immigration applications for this consideration period," it said.
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