Long way from home

March 22, 2020

Thousands of Pakistani pilgrims have been stranded in Iran since the borders have closed due to coronavirus outbreak

An official checking body temperature of a citizens.

Tauseef Rajpoot left for Iran for a week with a group of nearly 300 pilgrims on February 22 to visit holy places in Mashhad and Qom and got stuck when the pandemic coronavirus seriously gripped Iran.

Amidst the coronavirus outbreak, thousands of Pakistani pilgrims have been stranded in various cities in Iran since the borders have closed. Half of Rajpoot’s group is in the camps set up on Taftan border on the Iranian side and waiting for the border to open. The other half of the group is scattered in the holy city of Mashhad living in cheap hotels or some Imambargahs hoping that this would allow them to reach their homes sooner.

“We are among the batches left here when Pakistan decided to close the border with Iran in the wake of corona pandemic,” Rajpoot, who is one of the organisers in the group tells The News on Sunday on the phone, adding, “According to our information there are still around 5,000 Pakistani pilgrims in Iran. Half of thse are on the Iranian side of the Taftan border waiting to get a nod from Pakistani authorities to enter.” He says the quarantined pilgrims have been living underneath the open sky in camps for several days.

Last week Pakistan sealed its borders with Iran and Afghanistan after coronavirus cases started emerging in the country – particularly among pilgrims returning from Iran. Nearly 6,000 pilgrims had made it to the border before closure; they have been kept in deplorable conditions in Pakistan House on Taftan border and some other buildings and open camps where the virus, many fear, has further spread as they have been together in crowded spaces for two weeks without any screening.

“We were in better conditions in Iran and we are unable to understand why Pakistani authorities treated us like animals and did not screen us properly,” says Ali Hussain, a pilgrim now on Pakistani side of the border.

Most pilgrims from Pakistan visit the holy sites on a short-stay visa with limited funds to spend. They keep only a small amount of money with them as reserve while the rest is spent on travel and accommodation.

“Those who can afford, and there are only a few of them, are returning to Pakistan via air travel through Gulf countries as Pakistan has also banned Iranian flights. Those who cannot afford it, are in the majority, and living in cheap hotels, with Pakistani medical students and some holy places. They are dependent on charity food or help extended by Pakistani students,” says Rajpoot.

“We appeal to the Pakistani authorities to be merciful and arrange our return whether by opening border for a day or sending a special plane,” says Muhammad Ali, another pilgrim stranded in Iran. He adds that the “Pakistani embassy in Iran is not paying any serious attention to our issues. We are short of money. We were just on a pilgrim visa. Our families are worried and waiting for us in Pakistan. We appeal to the prime minister and the government to help us.”

Balochistan government spokesperson Liaquat Shahwani says that at least 5,000 Pakistanis are stranded in Iran after the closure of border but a final decision to open the border would be made by the federal government. “The stranded Pakistanis include pilgrims as well as traders and other visitors,” he says.

Majlis-i-Wahdatul Muslimeen, a Shiite religio-political group in Pakistan has also demanded that the government bring back all the pilgrims from Iran in a ‘respectful’ way. Iran has been making efforts to contain coronavirus since authorities announced the first deaths almost a month ago. Now the number of deaths has crossed 1,000.

“We want to return to our homes and meet our loved ones. How long can we be stranded here? We don’t know how long this will go and we are out of money and living without a roof. Will our government listen to us?” asks a stranded Pakistani pilgrim Shuja Abbas.

The author is a staff reporter.  He can be reached at [email protected]

Thousands of Pakistani pilgrims stranded in Iran since borders are closed amid coronavirus outbreak