By Salman Parviz

Repatriation of Indian pilgrims, students in Qom ongoing

April 7, 2020 - 12:34

TEHRAN - Thousands of travelers have been stranded throughout the world unable to return back to their country of origin due to flight cancellations and border restrictions amid Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. This is the story of more than 1,200 Indian pilgrims and seminary students stranded in the holy city of Qom during the Nowruz holidays.

“There are over 6,000 Indian nationals in various provinces of Iran. These include about 1,100 pilgrims mainly from the Union Territories of Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir and the State of Maharashtra; nearly 300 students primarily from the UT of Jammu and Kashmir; about 1000 fishermen, including from Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat,” Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar said early March.

“Given a large number of Indians in Iran, it was natural that we should seek to sequence their return, taking into account their location and exposure. The initial focus is on visiting pilgrims. Many of them are in Qom, where Coronavirus incidence has been strong. The nature of their residency also increases the risks of exposure”, added Jaishankar.

Iran was among the worst impacted countries in the world in terms of the COVID-19 outbreak. Since the first two cases were announced on February 19 in Qom, the number has swelled countrywide. Hence the return of these pilgrims and students became a priority for the Indian High Commission and Iranian officials.

Before the arrangement for the departure of some 1,200 pilgrims and students, they had to be tested for COVIC-19 infection. For this purpose, a six-member medical team was dispatched to Iran by the Indian Council of Medical Research on March 5, to run a medical lab and test the stranded Indian citizens for infection. A wellness center was established where the medical team conducted tests on the Indian citizens and at least 255 had tested positive for COVID-19.


Arrangements were made for the return of most of the Indian citizens who had tested negative. Those who tested positive are still in Qom. The Indian Embassy with the help of Iranian authorities has made arrangements for hotels and other expenses. These individuals are presently self-isolating in various hotels in Qom for the past two weeks.

They are currently waiting for another test and it is being hoped that they will test negative this time.

Indian Ambassador Ghaddam Dharmendre visited Qom on Saturday to expedite their departure. During the trip, the Indian envoy also met with the Qom Governor-General Bahram Sarmast.

IRNA quoted Sarmast as saying that the settlement and quarantining of Indian citizens in some 50 hotels in Qom, as well as their treatment, were put on the agenda of Iranian officials as well. The report also quoted Dharmendre as saying that India is seeking to lift the burden of treatment of Indian citizens from the Iranian government.

Flight arrangements

India is currently blocking all international commercial airlines except those carrying Indians stranded abroad, including Iran, which come under special category. 

Meanwhile, the Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on March 8 said efforts are underway for the return of Indian pilgrims from Iran’s Qom city and follow up arrangements are being discussed with the Iranian authorities.

On March 7, Indian government said that they will ease the travel ban on Iran to bring back some of the Indian citizens, and till March 9, 389 people had been evacuated after their COVID-19 test results came out negative. 

On March 12, Dharmendre made the announcement on tweeter of three flights scheduled to take the Indian pilgrims back. The Indian envoy informed that a group of 120 stranded pilgrims were scheduled to leave for India on Friday, March 13 and a third flight was being scheduled for the following Saturday on March 14.

The Indian government informed the Lok Sabha (Indian parliament) on March 18 that there were 255 Indian citizens currently in Iran who had tested positive. Secretary of Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Dammu Ravi announced that “We have evacuated about 590 people from Iran where the situation is severe. Indians infected with virus in Iran have been segregated and taken care of very well. We believe they will recover and will bring them back,” 

Over the past two weeks, more than 800 Indian students and pilgrims have been evacuated on Mahan Air flights, reports Andalu Agency. The last flight went on March 28, after which operations were again suspended.

In the midst of all this, unfortunately, on March 19 India confirmed the death of one of its citizens in Iran who had tested positive.

Indian Embassy officials and staff have worked tirelessly for the evacuation process and are the unsung heroes of this story. By traveling to Qom they risked their lives to help with the evacuation of the stranded Indians. Also worth mentioning is that seminary students in Qom also helped in rendering assistance to the stranded pilgrims.

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