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Canadians in South Africa face cancelled flights, uncertainty as they try to return

South Africa is one of 10 countries targeted in Canada’s new travel restrictions
Megan Tanya Hodgkinson poses in this undated handout photo. Canadians trying to come home from South Africa say they’re frustrated by a lack of communication from the federal government and by testing requirements that make some trips impossible. She was visiting relatives in South Africa when the Canadian government put new travel restrictions in place on several African countries last week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO — Megan Tanya Hodgkinson

Megan Tanya Hodgkinson was visiting relatives in South Africa last week when Canada imposed travel restrictions on several African countries after scientists detected a new variant of the novel coronavirus.

Hodgkinson, who was in Durban to see her sick mother, planned to return home with some of her in-laws to celebrate Christmas in Ontario. Now, her in-laws’ visit has been cancelled and she isn’t sure how she’ll get home.

“My husband and my two other kids are in Canada and if I have to miss Christmas with them, it’s heartbreaking,” Hodgkinson, who is travelling with her three-year-old son, said in an interview Wednesday.

Canadians attempting to return from South Africa — one of 10 countries targeted in Canada’s new travel restrictions — say they face poorly conceived rules that are difficult to follow and they aren’t receiving enough information from the federal government about how to return home.

Citizens of South Africa and six neighbouring nations, along with Egypt, Malawi and Nigeria can’t come to Canada. Canadians returning from those countries must get a COVID-19 test before departure, another test in their country of transit, and to get tested once more when they land. They also need to quarantine when they arrive in Canada at a government-designated facility until they get a negative result.

Hodgkinson, who is a Canadian permanent resident with a South African passport, said she worries she won’t be able to meet the in-transit testing rule.

Getting a COVID-19 test at the London, England, airport, where she has her connecting flight will require her to go through immigration — something that is only possible for travellers from South Africa who are British or Irish citizens, because of U.K. travel restrictions intended to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

“I’m trying my best to do everything legally, in the right way,” she said. “I don’t want to bring any virus into my home country.

“That transit test is stopping a lot of Canadians from getting back home and that’s causing a big problem.”

She said it feels like the Canadian entry restrictions weren’t designed with the realities of Canadian travellers in mind.

“I don’t understand this transit test in the middle of the flights back. I’m getting a test before I leave South Africa and getting a test when I get (to Canada),” she said.

“I’m waiting in the hotel to have a negative test and then going straight home. I have a quarantine plan. I have my own car waiting for me at the airport, so, no one’s even driving me home.”

Hodgkinson said the restrictions are unfair because they only target certain African countries, despite the fact the Omicron variant has been detected in Europe, Asia and the United States.

“The South African government was open and honest with the rest of the world, they didn’t hide it,” she said. “They could have just kept quiet, but this feels to me like it’s going to teach the rest of the world to just keep quiet.”

Peter Pfefferle, a Montreal resident who travelled to South Africa to see a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a school built by a charity he supports, said he was planning to return to Canada on a KLM flight last Monday. However, he and his wife had their reservation cancelled because the trip had a stopover in the Netherlands. That country issued a recent order banning non-European citizens from transiting through its territory.

Pfefferle, a Canadian citizen, also has a German passport, but his wife, Natacha Carpentier, only has a Canadian passport.

“We went to the airport that night to try to get on the plane, but they lifted up Natacha’s passport and they said, ‘that’s your problem,’” Pfefferle said in an interview Wednesday. “That’s the first time in my life that I regret having a Canadian passport or that my wife has a Canadian passport.”

Pfefferle said he struggled to get hold of the Canadian consulate in Cape Town and that an email service for Canadians abroad only provided information about entry requirements.

“They say, ‘if you’re in South Africa, right now please be prepared to stay longer.’”

The couple has now booked a flight through Germany after they were unable to get a flight transiting through the United States.

“Now we realize the only country that’s taking care of us is Germany,” Carpentier said.

Edos Omorotionmwan, a lawyer in Calgary, said he’s worried his father will have to cancel a planned visit from Nigeria in January. Omorotionmwan said he thinks Canada’s decision to only restrict travel from African countries is racist.

“I understand that there is a need for us to be very cautious as far as it relates to COVID and our responses to the variants that are coming out periodically,” said in an interview Wednesday. “But I think that in this particular instance, it appears to be very racist.”

“Why has it not been extended to European countries where Omicron has been detected?”

Global Affairs Canada did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

—Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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