29-year-old Shriraj Shroff sits inside the lounge at the Hamad International Airport in Doha while he waits for his flight to Ethiopia. Out of the 14-hour long layover, he still has six more hours to go.
After arriving in Ethiopia, he is going to spend two nights in a hotel while he waits for his RT-PCR test results to come, before finally taking a flight to the Pearson International Airport in Toronto.
The entire journey from India to Toronto is going to take him three days and will cost him more than $4,500 CAD – but he has no choice.
He was told if he wasn't back in Canada by May 24, he would lose his job.
Such is the story of many Indians and Canadians scrambling back to Canada ever since the travel ban came into effect on 22 April.
Due to the sudden surge of coronavirus cases and the appearance of a novel, more transmissible variant in India, Canada banned all direct flights from India and Pakistan on April 22.
Unlike the U.S. policy, the Canada travel ban gave citizens no buffer time to get back to the country. This immediate and stringent action left many students, workers, citizens, and permanent residents stranded in India.
However, many Indians were quick to notice and act upon a very visible loophole – they could still travel to Canada via an indirect route. All they need is a negative COVID-19 test from a third country.
Since most of the standard transit routes through the UAE, United Kingdom, Germany and the U.S. have also been banned for Indians, two routes have become quite popular this month for everyone trying to reach Canada.
However, it’s not an easy journey and is awfully expensive.
Winding route back to Canada is pricey, but not impossible
Shroff went back to India in the first week of April to get married. His company gave him an approved leave for a month, which meant he had to be back in Canada by May 10.
However, after the ban, the newly-wed was stuck there and was on the brink of losing his job.
“I requested them to let me work from India, but due to some legal and tax issues, I wasn’t permitted to work outside Canada,” Shroff said.
“They told me that they can’t carry on like this and won’t be holding my position for an indefinite period of time, so I had to find a way to get back as soon as possible.”
After a lot of research, Shroff discovered various groups on Facebook and WhatsApp for “Canadians stranded in India”. That’s when he discovered the Ethiopia route that many Indians are taking to reach Canada.
Since there is no direct flight from Mumbai to Addis Ababa, Shroff had to travel via Doha.
“In Doha, I had a 14-hour layover. I relaxed in the lounge for six hours, but I just spent another six hours sitting at the airport. It was crazy,” Shroff said.
He also added that immigration at the airport in Ethiopia was extremely difficult and that many passengers were turned away.
I knew it was going to be a long and expensive journey. But you know, what choice did I have? I have so many plans, I just got married, I want to settle in Canada. Right now is not the time to lose my job."Shriraj Shroff, Canadian stranded in India
Achyuth Krishna, a 24-year-old student at the University of Ottawa is also currently stuck in India and is planning to go back to Canada through the Ethiopia route on May 30.
He went back to India on April 18 to visit his mother after he lost three family members in the span of 4 months.
“My mother and sister live alone, and it’s been so long since I’ve seen them. I lost my grandfather in January, but I couldn’t come then. But this time, after I lost two more family members in the span of 10 days, I didn’t have a choice,” Krishna said.
Krishna was supposed to travel back to Canada early May for an internship. However, after the ban, Krishna lost his internship offer and has been stuck in India with no certainty on when he can travel back.
“I don’t want to stay here because I’ll lose so many opportunities in Canada and the job market is so tough anyway," Krishna said.
“It’s scary transiting through many airports, and the cost is definitely a burden on me since I’m only a student, but I’m determined to go back. Instead of two masks, I’ll wear three – but I need to go."Achyuth Krishna, University of Ottawa student
Flight from Ethiopia 'was completely full'
Other popular routes being used by many people include Belgrade and Mexico. Both countries are easy to enter for Indian passport holders and offer transit testing. While Belgrade has become a more popular option for permanent residents and Canadian citizens, many Indians with a valid travel US visa are opting for Mexico.
One passenger even spent two days in Belgrade “exploring the beautiful town”, before catching his flight to Canada.
With the extension of the travel ban recently, people are becoming more anxious and rushing to Canada through indirect routes.
Due to this, many are wondering whether the ban is now counterproductive and actually exacerbates the risk of COVID-19 on international flights coming in from these countries.
According to Shroff, a source told him that almost 120 passengers from India landed in Toronto on a flight from Ethiopia on May 24. Most of these passengers have transited through multiple airports, encounter hundreds of hotel and airport staff along with fellow travellers.
Poornima Gogi, 32, also traveled to Canada recently through Ethiopia. According to her, no one was following COVID-19 protocols at the airport in Addis Ababa or on the flight.
“Our flight from Doha to Ethiopia was completely full and people were not following any rules. They weren’t maintaining distance or wearing proper masks,” Gogi said.
“Then, technically, direct flights are much safer this way if you think about it,” she added.
Indirect routes may be safest option, Public Health Agency says
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the implementation of the Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) and the strict requirements for travellers from India and Pakistan has actually led to a drop in the weekly positivity rates reported through the Canada Border Testing program since the end of April.
Between April 7 to 24, 2021, there were 183 international inbound affected flights that reached Canada – 47 of those were direct flights from India and three were direct from Pakistan.
“The Canada Border Testing Program detected a high rate of positive cases entering Canada via India, more than any other country since February 21, 2021,” a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada said.
However, the weekly positivity rates have consistently dropped since the implementation of the ban, according to the data provided by the Government of Canada.
“Requirements for travellers coming to Canada from these countries via an indirect route along with border measures implemented by other countries are likely to impact indirect travel volumes from both countries, decreasing the number of positive cases on connecting flights arriving to Canada,” the Agency said.
In a statement, Global Affairs Canada said that the Government of Canada continues to take “unprecedented action to protect the health and safety of Canadians” and will continue to introduce measures to help prevent further introduction and transmission of COVID-19, and new variants of the virus into Canada.
“Since March 2020, the Government of Canada has and continues to advise against non-essential travel outside of Canada,” they said.
The Government of Canada has announced no repatriation flights for citizens stranded in India.
Although it’s still uncertain whether the ban will be extended after June 21, direct Air India flights from India to Canada are already priced at 2000 CAD and above starting June 22.