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COVID-19: Over 300 Nigerian students demand evacuation from Saudi Arabia

Another batch of more than 100 Nigerians who had been stranded in Saudi Arabia due to the restriction of movements caused by coronavirus disease, will on Saturday arrive in the country.

A source at the Nigeria’s embassy in Riyadh, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who craved anonymity, told PREMIUM TIMES that Azman Air Services Limited has been contracted to airlift the evacuees.

The first batch of 292 evacuees which included students and those who had travelled for lesser hajj before the lockdown, had been successfully brought to the country by the Saudi authorities in May.

They were then said to be part of the 11,600 Nigerians the government of Saudi Arabia had expressed its intention to airlift back home due to the biting effect of the dangerous coronavirus disease.

But more than 300 Nigerian students, who are on scholarship in various universities across Saudi Arabia, have blamed the Nigerian authorities, particularly the country’s embassy in Saudi Arabia, for what they described as their unfair treatment by the embassy’s officials.

The students, who made the trip in May, were from about six universities including the University of Qosseem, University of Dammom, University of King Abd Azeez, among others.

But about 149 of them from Islamic University, Medina, who had earlier been scheduled to join the first flight could not make the journey as they could not travel from Medina to Jeddah due to the ban on intercity movements. They said the embassy could not facilitate their intercity pass to enable them make the journey.

Meanwhile, since May, both the 149 students and about 200 others have remained stranded in Saudi, even as their various institutions had prepared their visa ahead of their resumption in August for another session.

They had also been officially disengaged by the universities at the end of the session in May, with the institutions no longer responsible for their feeding and welfare until when they would resume for another session in August.

The students blamed their plight on what they described as the poor response to their request for a pass and a letter of assurance for a landing permit from Nigeria’s embassy in Saudi Arabia to Saudi Airline.

However, PREMIUM TIMES’ finding revealed that the embassy authorities eventually wrote the Saudi Airline on July 16.

New evacuees
Meanwhile, the latest evacuees, who are billed to arrive Nigeria on Saturday night, are other categories of Nigerians who were stranded in the Kingdom but had to pay for their evacuation back home.

According to sources including a student of Al-Imam University, Riyadh, Mahmoud Zakariyah, about 10 of the stranded students who could afford to pay for their tickets, made the Saturday trip.

Mr Zakariyah said; “We were expected to pay about N285,000 for tickets and as students who are on scholarship, we don’t have such money. We are entitled to return tickets from the government of Saudi Arabia through our various universities but the Saudi Airline needed a letter from our embassy that its aircraft would be allowed to land upon arrival in Nigeria.

“But since we finished our examinations between April and May, we have continued to appeal to our embassy to help us facilitate the process. Many prominent Nigerians intervened. The embassy officials would keep telling our representatives that the letter had been sent, but we would eventually find out that nothing was done, until we received another fresh letter on Thursday, which has been addressed to the Saudi Airline.”

Oluwo intervenes
After more than two months that the students had been stranded in Saudi Arabia, the Oluwo of Iwo, AbdulRasheed Akanbi, during the week intervened on behalf of the distraught students.

Some of the affected students are believed to be from Iwo.

In a telephone interview with our reporter, the monarch said he was disturbed when he learnt that the students had remained stranded for more than two months.

He said; “Since 6a.m today, I had been on the phone speaking to relevant authorities including the foreign affairs minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, the chairman of Nigerians in diaspora commission, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, and Nigeria’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia. They have all promised to fast track the process of their evacuation.

“Please, tell the students that their matter is now being taken seriously and I can assure you that the government has promised that they would soon be brought back home. I know what it means to be held down in a foreign country. I know they will live to their expectations.”

Meanwhile, in what seems a confirmation of the traditional ruler’s promise, a letter addressed to Saudi Airline and signed by Nigeria’s deputy ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Sa’heedu Tigi, has demanded the airline to choose three days from which the embassy could pick one for the students’ evacuation.

The letter, which is dated July 16, a copy of which PREMIUM TIMES obtained, advised the airline to choose convenient dates before the Muslim festival which is billed to hold on July 31.

It reads in part; “The embassy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in Riyadh presents its compliments to the management of Saudi Arabia Airline and has the honour to request Saudi Airline to arrange for evacuation of flight for Nigerian students in various Saudi institutions and other interested Nigerians stranded in the kingdom. The number of students interested in the evacuation is about 335, while the number of other interested Nigerians cannot be ascertained as of now.

“Furthermore, the embassy wishes to request your esteemed airline to propose three different dates before eid-al-adha for the arrival of the aircraft either at Nnamdi Azikiwe international airport, Abuja, or Murtala Muhammed international airport in Lagos. This is to enable the embassy liaise with relevant authorities in Nigeria, accordingly for necessary flight and landing permits and arrange as well, airport reception.”

Students still unsure
Meanwhile the students have also appealed to meaningful Nigerians to keep up with the follow-up on their matter, saying this would not be the first time the embassy would show them such a letter but that the airline would deny receiving such.

One of the leaders of Nigerian students in Saudi Arabia, who does not want to be named, accused the embassy officials of deliberately “victimising” them, saying because they did not pass through the embassy in securing their scholarships, the “officials feel unconcerned about their matters.”

But the spokesperson for Nigeria’s foreign affairs ministry, Ferdinand Nwoye, said the embassy must follow required protocols in getting the issue resolved, and appealed to the students to calm down.

“I am sure the embassy officials know what to do and they are doing it. It is not just about letters but there are other conditions that must be met. So, I appeal to the students that their matter is being addressed.”

-Premium Times

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