'We're effectively hostages': Canadians stranded in Morocco due to COVID-19 flight ban
TORONTO -- A university professor says he and “hundreds” of other Canadians are “effectively hostages” in Morocco after flights to Canada were stopped by the North African country.
Anthony Williams-Jones, a professor with McGill University's department of earth and planetary sciences in Montreal, and five students are on a field trip and stranded in Morocco after it grounded flights to foreign countries.
“We were at Tangier airport trying to check-in to our flight from Casablanca to Montreal, learned that it was cancelled and immediately contacted the Canadian embassy and learnt that 20 countries were on the banned list in terms of flights out of the country, including Canada,” Williams-Jones told CTV’s Your Morning.
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On Sunday, Morocco's Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it was suspending all international passenger flights to and from the country "until further notice,” though 100 “exceptional flights” have since been allowed to repatriate tourists.
Williams-Jones told CTV Montreal about people at the airport “pushing and shoving to get a seat on any plane,” and the group is still looking for alternative routes out of the country.
In terms of a response from the Canadian Embassy in Rabat, Morocco’s capital, Williams-Jones said he and his students have been “left to our own devices.”
“The angle we’re working on at the moment is to try and get authorization from the Moroccan government to leave the country,” Williams-Jones said.
“ I think a way of looking at the whole thing is that we and all other Canadians trapped here are effectively hostages. I feel the (Canadian) government has a responsibility to contact the Moroccan government to negotiate our release.”
By contrast, he said, the Quebec government has been “very supportive.”
The McGill group has been in Morocco for two weeks as part of a geology project that has been part of Williams-Jones' curriculum for “innocent, rock-loving travelers” for more than 40 years.
They have booked an apartment in Casablanca until mid-April, adding if they can't get a flight home, they'll have enough provisions to last until things calm down.
The group has since started a petition demanding that the federal government bring all Canadians home.
“We’re in contact now with hundreds of Canadians stuck in this country, we’re trying to give them the latest information,” Williams-Jones said.
Global Affairs Canada issued a blunt warning to Canadian travellers on Saturday urging them to come home while they still have the chance.
"Airlines have cancelled flights. New restrictions may be imposed with little warning. Your travel plans may be severely disrupted and you may be forced to remain outside of Canada longer than expected," the ministry said in an email to registered Canadians abroad.
Canada has imposed its own travel restrictions. Foreign travellers from anywhere except the U.S. will be banned from entering Canada, and any Canadians travellers exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 will not be allowed to board flights to Canada.
International flights will only be permitted at four major airports: Toronto Pearson International Airport, Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, Vancouver International Airport and Calgary International Airport. Domestic flights and those from the U.S., Mexico, the Caribbean and Saint Pierre and Miquelon are exempted.
Those rules take effect Wednesday.
Airlines have also clamped down on travel. WestJet announced that it will stop all international and U.S. flights on Sunday at 11:59 p.m. for the next month.
The federal government has also offered financial assistance for Canadian travellers, offering emergency loans of up to $5,000 to help them come back home.
And as dozens of countries suspend international air travel in hopes of halting the global spread of COVID-19, other Canadian travellers who left home before the outbreak exploded find themselves trapped overseas with no clear sign of when they can come home.
Danielle Hennink and Cathryn Edgar travelled to Peru for a once-in-a-life trip to Machu Picchu. But before the pair from Paris, Ont. could reach the breathtaking Inca citadel, Peru’s government imposed a nationwide lockdown and cancelled all international flights for at least 15 days.
“There’s absolutely nothing you can do,” Edgar, who is now in isolation at an AirBnb with her tour group, told CTV News.
Snowbirds Lily Hrabchak, 71, and her husband Tommy Hrabchak, 86, are fighting to stay put in Florida, despite the fact that their insurance provider is stopping medical coverage after March 23.
The Toronto couple said they don’t want to come home right now in case they expose themselves to the virus at the airport or on the plane.
“To have a gun put to my temple telling me that you've got close up you shop, you’ve got to pack up, and you’ve got to take your loved one into a potentially dangerous situation -- why would they even want to do that?” Hrabchak said.
Graduate student Joseph Nesrallah is set to return to Canada from the United Kingdom on Wednesday. His top concern: his health.
“The priority is making sure I stay healthy, I’m able to board the flight and I'm able to make it back to Toronto,” he said.
- With files from CTV Montreal’s Rachel Lau and CTVNews.ca reporter Cillian O’Brien