An Immigration Ordeal

By Tara and KP Mohanan

The Experience

When returning from Argentina recently, we were stopped at the Kochi airport for not having a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate, and quarantined for 5 days at the Yellow Fever (YF) quarantine facility on the Delhi airport premises.

We were fortunate to have had the mental resources to face the challenge, and the financial resources to not be bankrupted by the expenses imposed by the quarantine. This is not the case with all who are in a similar situation. A quarantined gentleman we met at the facility was in Sudan to look for a job, found one, and came home briefly see his young family before joining. He was whisked away for six days, with his entire savings and more wiped out by the quarantine expenses, which included air travel from Kochi to Delhi and back, and food and rent for the six days. He said, “My life has been destroyed.”

This is the story of our ordeal, and suggestions for a solution to avoid such situations in future, sent to PM Modi and other relevant authorities. It is imperative that the government takes such steps to prevent its citizens from going through such nightmares.

 

Background for Travel

We have two grandchildren in El Bolsón, Argentina — a 3-year old granddaughter and a 2-month old grandson. In March 2015, we were in El Bolsón for 26 days visiting them and their parents. The journey is long (close to 10,000 km) and expensive, so naturally, we don’t get to see our daughter and her family as often as we wish.

The Regulation

On March 30, at the Qatar Airways counter in Buenos Aires (the port of entry and exit in the country), when checking in for our return flight, we were informed by an official that passengers arriving in India after more than a week’s stay in Argentina are required to have had a Yellow Fever (YF) vaccination at least ten days before departure. They warned us of the possibility of the Indian immigration either deporting or quarantining us for lack of a YF Vaccination Certificate. We were also told incidentally that we were not at any risk of YF, as we had only been in the south, while YF was found only in a small pocket of Northern Argentina.

Now, we have visited Argentina twice before, in the December of 2011 and of 2012, and re-entered India without any vaccination. We were never told of the requirement of proof of vaccination, nor was this information available in a way that a passenger would have an opportunity to find out. So we asked the Qatar official if the regulation was a new one. We were told that it was an old one, and had existed for a few years. Since it had not applied before, we hoped that it was not a serious requirement, at least for travelers from Argentina.

We were leaving Argentina sooner than we would otherwise have, to be at our niece’s wedding in Kerala on April 4. Given the warning, we had two options: to board the flight, or, to re-book our return tickets, get the vaccination in Buenos Aires, stay on for 10 days and return with a 10-day old vaccination certificate. In Argentina, we would have to either stay in a hotel in Buenos Aires where we know no one, or take expensive flights to and from El Bolsón, where our children would have to make arrangements for our extra stay. All this would, of course, be to satisfy a regulation we had never encountered before. We could not afford either the expense or the time needed for staying on. So we boarded the flight.

On April 1 morning, at immigration in Kochi, we were stopped, and told that we couldn’t enter the country without a YF Vaccination Certificate. After going through numerous immigration officials, we were given two options: to be deported back to Argentina, or to be held for six days at the YF quarantine facility in Delhi. They understood our plight, but were helpless: apparently, Argentina had been included in the list of YF endemic countries just two weeks earlier, more than a week after we left India, with no provision for passengers already abroad to do anything about it, because they had no way of knowing of a new requirement for re-entering their own country!

We chose to be quarantined rather than deported.

Transport

To be quarantined, we were required to fly to Delhi by Air India, at our expense.

As Trans-Atlantic passengers, our baggage limit from Buenos Aires to Kochi was two bags per person, of up to 23 kg each. Between us, we were allowed 92 kg. Our baggage weighed 46 kg, half the international limit, but exceeded the limit for a domestic flight. At the Air India check-in counter in Kochi for the flight to Delhi, we explained our plight, and expected some consideration. The officials, including the airline’s assistant manager at the airport, were unbending, and charged us for every last gram of the excess.

Interestingly, this was quite in contrast to a similar experience in Argentina, where upon arrival, we had to transfer from our international flight to a domestic flight with a baggage limit of 15 kg per person. We exceeded that greatly (80 kg). At check-in, however, the gentleman looked at us, murmured, “International,” and waved us through with a smile!

The Facility

As we disembarked in Delhi, we were received by three immigration officials and brought to the quarantine facility by ambulance. The senior-most official told us that we were being taken to “a VIP facility with air-conditioning and television, very comfortable,” and “you will be very well taken care of.”

Once at the facility, at midnight on April 1, we had no idea who to contact in case of an emergency, or how. The next morning, as per our routine, we were up at 5 am. There was no provision for even a cup of warm water or tea until after 10 am, at which point we discovered that the only way to get any food over the next four days was to have someone bring it to us from a hotel near by.

By that night, the hotel food had given one of us an upset stomach. And through the night, there was no electricity or water. What we did have in abundance were thirsty mosquitoes, and no way to escape them. Repair work had meant cutting off electricity, and the situation continued throughout our quarantine. Fortunately, a generator was arranged for the nights, and parts of the day, allowing us to use fans much of the time.

There was no provision for laundry, unless one washed one’s own clothes and dried them on chairs in the room. We are both elderly, with arthritic hands and backs, so this was unpleasant enough for us, to say nothing of someone who was in fact ill.

The final surprise came when, the night before our release, we asked for our passports, which had been confiscated until then. We were told that they would be returned only after we had settled the bill for room rent at the facility!

Potential Infection: A shocking affair

Beyond the inconvenience, the expense, and the general treatment, what disturbed us was the fact that there was absolutely no monitoring of those quarantined.

  1. Even though we were not allowed to ‘enter the country’ because of potentially being infected with YF, when being moved from Kochi to Delhi we spent over an hour in the boarding area, and boarded a commercial flight. Had we really been infected, given the mosquitoes at the airport and in the aircraft, many unsuspecting passengers would also have been infected. This was clearly a mindless irresponsible application of a regulation, throwing basic caution and common sense to the winds, and putting hundreds of air passengers and others at risk.
  1. For five days we were confined to a room that was full of mosquitoes despite mosquito netting on the windows. Once again, no one seemed to worry about the logical contradiction involved in quarantining someone because of suspected YF, and at the same time not taking precautions against the possibility of that person infecting others. Furthermore, had an infected passenger been quarantined at the facility when we were there, we would have been infected because of quarantine.
  1. Either the authorities that quarantined us knew that there was no chance of our being infected (if so, why the quarantine?), or they allowed for the possibility of our being infected, and of infecting others (if so, why no medical monitoring?).

An official document on the regulation dated 23/9/2012 that says: “Any illness in the quarantined passengers during the period of their quarantine will be treated by the designated specialist doctors under the supervision of the APHO.” (http://mohfw.nic.in/WriteReadData/l892s/9642270354Advisory.pdf) Once the immigration officials dropped us off at the facility, no doctor or nurse came to check if we had YF symptoms, not even when we were being released. Suppose we did in fact have the disease, and left the quarantine without volunteering that information. What purpose would the quarantine have served?

As we see it, the purpose of such quarantine is simply to show that the authorities are “following” a WHO directive!

Suggested Solution

The thoughtless, entirely unnecessary bureaucratic procedure, which cost us five days and considerable expenses, could have been avoided had the authorities adopted the following simple steps:

  1. Prepare a pamphlet specifying(a) the communicable diseases that require vaccination certification when entering India;(b)  the relevant countries for each disease that the WHO lists as affected zones; and(c)  the minimum time required between taking the vaccination and entering the country.

    Also included should be the consequences of not carrying that certification, including the policy of deportation or quarantine, and the expenses involved.

  2. Request the Embassy/Consulate of each of the countries listed under (b) to give a copy of the pamphlet to anyone who applies for a visa to that country.At the Immigration counter at the point of departure, give a copy of the pamphlet to the traveler before stamping the passport.
  3. When implementing new regulations, allow a certain grace period for travelers already abroad at the time the new rules take effect. Having already traveled to Argentina twice before without this requirement, we had no way of knowing about a new rule that would affect us upon coming home.
  4. If the authorities are genuinely concerned about contagion, implement quarantine facilities as needed at major points of entry, instead of having potentially infected passengers sit around at crowded airports, and flying standard commercial flights all over India. Furthermore, if there is a real concern about introducing a disease to the country, quarantined passengers should be examined by medical professionals, and housed in facilities that do not promote the spread of disease.
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