After being stranded in Pakistan for a month, my parents are finally back home as of last night. Their journey is over but thousands of others are not. And I’m pretty angry about this whole thing.
So let’s take a little look at who my parents are. My mum, Lorraine, is a nurse, my father, Manzoor, is a retired NHS doctor. In Pakistan, he used to be a professor of general surgery. My mum is Indian, and they met in the UK working at the same hospital after my mum’s family moved to the UK and my dad had already been there a few years specialising in general surgery. Both have British nationality and neither has ever claimed a penny in benefits from the government.
In early March, they flew out to Pakistan for what was meant to be a short trip. On March 17, the British government began advising against all non-essential travel overseas, by which point they were already in Pakistan but planning to return soon. They were due to fly back on March 23, but by then the coronavirus situation had unfolded globally with more serious implications, and the Pakistani government shut its airspace for two weeks on March 21, automatically cancelling all flights.
Here is where the fiasco began. It’s not the British government’s fault that the Pakistani government shut its airspace. But what followed was an epic failure on their part, one I’m not even sure I’m surprised by given the stance of this particular government towards anyone who is not British born and bred, oh, and the right colour too. Playing the race card, you say? Just wait and listen.
In February, the UK government chartered a flight to repatriate a number of British passengers stuck on the quarantined cruise ship, the Diamond Princess which was docked at a Japanese port.
In March, the UK government chartered three flights to repatriate British tourists stuck in Peru. Foreign Secretary Domonic Raab said “The Foreign Office has chartered 3 more flights for British travelers in Peru – as well as domestic flights to help those in Cusco. We continue to work around the clock to help British travellers struggling to get back to the UK.”
At a press conference in early April, Dominic Raab said “On commercial flights we have helped over 200,000 UK nationals come home from Spain, 13,000 from Egypt and 8,000 from Indonesia. ‘We’ve also chartered flights from seven different countries bringing home more than 2,000 British nationals.” Around GBP 75 million was earmarked for Dominic Raab’s heroic airlift operation. Just one problem. Pakistan was left off the charter plan.
The crucial word for me in Dominic Raab’s presser is ‘home’.
For my parents and thousands of other British Pakistanis, Britain is home. It’s the place they made their lives and planned better futures for their four daughters. They, like so many others, thought that a British passport meant something, especially in times of crisis.
But they forgot that this is a Tory government, and this is a post-2016 referendum world in which nationalism runs rife, often hand in hand with its ugly sister, racism. They forgot Theresa May’s famous ‘citizens of nowhere’ speech, delivered in October 2016. “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”
My parents like thousands others were effectively being punished for being from more than one place. Immigrants are repeatedly told that they must integrate, they must fit in, they must blend in, they must prove their worth above and beyond the native population. They must prove they earned their British passport.
My parents did all of the above. My parents had bought their house outright, so they have never been in debt. They contributed taxes actively throughout their working life. They never so much as got a parking ticket. They raised their four daughters under the same philosophy, to give, not take from your country, to be independent, work hard, be kind.
But when it came to the crunch, none of this was enough. For weeks we waited to see what would happen with our parents. Their flight was cancelled three times in a row and after the third time, my mum became depressed, and I became angry.
I didn’t want to believe it but it’s become increasingly clear that this British government has made the decision for British Pakistanis as to where home really is. So they’re stuck in Pakistan, so what? They’re with family, the weather’s nice, the food’s good. They’d probably rather be there anyway, I mean, they’re not really Brits are they.
The message began to crystallise for me: it doesn’t matter how hard you have tried to integrate, how hard you have worked or how much you have contributed to British society. If you made the mistake of having roots elsewhere, the British government will completely ignore the strong branches you have spent your life putting out into the place you consider home and shrug and say “Yeah but your roots didn’t grow in British soil so… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ “
As a result, despite all the work my parents put into being contributing members of British society, the Foreign Office basically told them that they had no right to be missing home (Britain) because they were home already. Not so much go back to where you came from, but now that you’re there, stay there. So why all the fuss? Citizens of nowhere shouldn’t complain when they get stuck in no-man’s land, am I right, Dominic Raab?
At this point I even wonder why I’m surprised, given that amid this coronavirus outbreak, a damning report on the Windrush Scandal was released which stopped just short of saying that the Home Office was plagued by institutional racism.
To be fair, the failure to fly out Brits stuck in Pakistan may have been partly the fault of Pakistan’s current government, which is currently enjoying an extended amateur hour. But this is why embassies and consulates exist – to aid and assist citizens in getting home when they’re stranded somewhere without competent infrastructure. It’s what we all think our British passport means when we go travelling.
I live in Greece, and I fail to understand how the smaller government of Greece with less economic resources available than the British government was immediately able to launch a drive to repatriate all its citizens who wanted to come home, as quickly as possible.
I spent time screaming into the void on Twitter, trying to elicit responses from anyone, including the British high commission in Pakistan, to no avail. Others, including the writer and comedian Amna Saleem, took the airwaves to flag up the plight of their vulnerable parents. She wrote this blistering piece for GQ magazine. As it went to press, her parents’ flight was cancelled for a sixth time.
This whole experience has been sobering and depressing for my family. While they were stuck, my dad’s license to practise medicine was automatically reinstated so that he could contribute to the non-coronavirus medical care that the NHS is now not able to immediately address. The private hospital where my mother works began accepting NHS cases for the same reason. But neither could offer anything from thousands of miles away.
Now my parents are home, sleeping off their jet lag after my sisters and I spent the entirety of their eight and a half hour flight not daring to believe it until they landed.
The current situation the world finds itself in is being likened to a war. If you cannot help your citizens during a war, when can you help them? What use is a Foreign Office if it fails at the basic task of repatriating citizens in one of the biggest crises of our times? Is there some test somewhere that we can take to prove our worth?
How much harder do we have to try? If my parents had a holiday home in the Caribbean like Boris Johnson, or in the bleached concrete of the Costa del Sol, instead of a corner of Pakistan’s Punjab, would that have deemed them worthy of repatriation sooner?
So finally, how British is British enough?