Reportage. Thousands of Italians have been stuck in various countries around the world since the beginning of the coronavirus emergency. Flights have been canceled or are too expensive to return home.

The long quarantine of Italians abroad

They found themselves stranded far from home in the middle of the pandemic, and they can’t get back. They are living under curfew or in locked-down countries. Their health insurance is expiring. They’re in the Amazon, on tropical islands, on the edge of the desert or in megalopolises. These fellow Italians are raising a cry of alarm towards the Italian authorities. “Stranded. Stuck. That’s what we’ve been for two months now, scattered around the world. Without the possibility of returning, under the grip of fear,” they write in a public appeal to the Foreign Ministry headed by Luigi Di Maio, signed by about 3,500 people in just a few days.

There are no accurate numbers regarding where they are. Their situations vary greatly, and if they manage to return, this is not always communicated to the authorities. However, tens of thousands of people are in this situation. Among the wide spectrum of individual situations, the biggest problems are the lack of flights or the exorbitant cost of tickets. This leads us to the issue of the European Civil Protection Mechanism (EUCPM), which contains a community repatriation fund which reimburses member states with between 8% and 75% of the price of tickets for repatriation. According to the table published on May 4 on the EU website, the fund has financed the return of 65,213 residents (58,097 EU citizens and 7,116 citizens of third countries). Germany has taken the lion’s share with 32,548 people. Italy had only 1,195 returnees.

Furthermore, there was only one flight organized autonomously by our country using European funding: the one on February 21 from Tokyo for passengers on the Diamond Princess. Despite repeated requests, the Foreign Ministry has not clarified why there haven’t been any more. The main problems probably concern the extent and modalities of reimbursement of very expensive flights for which the state must pay in advance, in addition to the high burden on the offices involved and the conditions for the activation of the fund.

Behind all these numbers there are just as many stories. Individual ones, but always intersecting with the economic-political contexts and the different anti-contagion strategies being pursued across the globe. In Bolivia, the coup-installed government has imposed a curfew: according to the latest version of the law, you can go out only one day a week to do your shopping. Those who disobey are sent to prison.

“There are no flights or internal connections. The Italian embassy hasn’t organised any flights for the return journey, it told us to go to the embassies of other European countries,” says Luca Profenna, a 35-year-old educator who left last December and has been stuck in La Paz since February. He was the first to organize a WhatsApp group with 80 other Italians in Bolivia, and then a larger one with Italians on all five continents. This is where the idea for the appeal was born, “to sidestep the mechanism of individual petitions and recognize that all of us are in the same condition,” he explains.

Even more precarious is the situation of Agnese Della Morte, 54 years old, originally from Verona and who moved to Trinidad two years ago to look after her Italian-Bolivian nephew. “We had decided to return to Italy permanently in April,” she tells us. “We are on the edge of the Amazon. There are no hospitals or pharmacies. Under normal conditions, without the roadblocks, the nearest city is 12 hours away, the capital is 15 hour away. Since there are no flights for Italians, they told us to go to other embassies. But the seats for us are the last ones left, they cost up to €2,000 each and they only tell you two days before. And without a safe travel permit, we can’t move.”

Some have managed to leave Ecuador, where the epidemic is particularly severe, but many are still stuck. “The Ambassador told us she has a list with 240 people, 50 of whom are Italian citizens. We are in limbo, there are no commercial flights and we don’t know when we will be able to return,” says Zarella Rodriguez. She was born in Quito, but grew up in Italy, where she got her education. She is 28 years old and still awaiting Italian citizenship. She came back for three months to visit her grandparents and uncles, and she is worried: in Ecuador, there are eight people in their household and only one person is working, while in Italy her mother is a home caregiver and her father has recently lost his job.

Marco Tirozzi is 32 years old and works as commercial director of two fishing companies in Mauritania. He lives in Nouadhibou, on the border with Morocco. He asked for a travel pass to reach the port of Tangier with his car, get on a boat for Genoa and from there return to Naples. However, the Italian authorities only offered him the option to go to the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott and take a series of flights to return home, after at least three stopovers and several days spent at various airports. “But there’s the desert in between: being alone in the car, during the lockdown, is dangerous,” he says. “The airports are the main hotbed of contagion: I just can’t take the risk to bring the virus home, where my father lives, who is 65 years old.”

Sandra Franzoso and her husband are in Kenya. They have been transferred to a resort in Malindi where they are waiting for a flight together with other Italians. The next one was supposed to leave Mombasa on May 9. The prices range between €990 and €1,690, with Alitalia. The embassy in Nairobi announced yesterday that another date being discussed is May 17, with the Neos airline. It is not possible to book anything yet, and the prices have not been published.

In Pushkar, in the Indian state of Rajastahan, Claudia Azzarelli, her partner and their five-year-old boy are stranded. They had a Turkish Airlines flight on March 20, but it was cancelled and they have been waiting ever since. “With the solutions proposed by the embassy, we would have had to spend a total of more than €5,000, but we don’t have it,” says Azzarelli. “I do crafts and my partner is a musician, so for now we are unemployed. The people at home have lost their jobs or are on paid layoff, and we can’t ask them for money. In addition, we live in Palermo, which at the moment is difficult to get to even from other Italian cities. According to the numbers provided by the authorities, there are about 320 Italians stuck in India. We want the embassy to take care of us.”

On the island of Langkawi in Malaysia, Vanina Vio and a friend of hers are stranded. “Here, the lockdown is not so hard, and we are in a privileged situation,” she says, “but the money is running out. I lost my job because nobody knows if the tourist season in Venice will even start. We found ourselves in a situation of forced cohabitation with a man who became aggressive. It is right that those who are in a more difficult situation should return first, but we can’t remain in uncertainty for long either. There are no special repatriation flights, and the embassy is only proposing commercial routes at very high prices.”

The price issue is a complex one, and in this regard as well, the individual situations are very different. A case in point is the situation of Italians waiting to return from Buenos Aires. There are around 400 of them. On March 25, thanks to the intervention of the Italian authorities, flights were available at bargain prices on Neos airplanes that were returning to Europe after repatriating South American cruise passengers from the Old Continent. Then, the route was suspended for a month. On April 23 and 25, two more flights departed, with tickets costing between €1,881 (in economy) and €2,330 (in business class).

Alitalia says that the repatriation flights were provided at a loss, because the aircraft had to leave Italy empty and return with only 40% of the capacity of the Boeing 777 airplanes (just 129 passengers). Following the Ministerial Decree of April 10, social distancing rules also apply on board aircraft. In the absence of a public subsidy, stranded citizens ended up paying for both the outbound and return legs of a long and half-empty flight.

In Argentina, a country that hosts a large Italian community, the block might clear up because the repatriation of Argentines has begun, so carriers are no longer forced to make the outbound flight without passengers. As a result, on April 30, the price of the tickets went down to “just” €1,200, and on Wednesday a new flight from Aereolineas Argentinas was set to fly at a lower cost (about 820 dollars). In a country 4,361 km long and with internal transport blocked, reaching the capital to get on a flight is also a serious problem.

“So far, the confirmation of the flights has arrived about 48 hours before departure. To go to the capital, you have to apply for a visa that takes at least one day to issue. From the city where I am, if you rent a car and drive without any stops at all, it takes more than 20 hours to get to Buenos Aires,” says Andrea Marzolla. 33 years old, a researcher in theoretical physics with a contract that expired on March 31, who is stuck in San Carlos de Bariloche (1,559 km away from the intercontinental airport of Ezeiza).

The world is clearly experiencing a situation of unprecedented chaos, which has made the activity of the authorities more complicated. However, almost two months after the declaration of a pandemic, there is no more time to lose to bring back home the people who are stuck far away. “This situation has taught us that the protection of people, collective health and the safeguarding of human lives are the most important things we have, and certainly not worth any less than cash and financial resources”—this is what the citizens who are waiting for the authorities to intervene are emphasizing in their appeal.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!