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First 50 repatriated passengers to be selected soon

Nuku'alofa, Tonga

MEIDECC CEO, Paula Ma'u, Nuku'alofa. 17 June 2020.

By Eleanor Gee

The 50 passengers to board the first repatriation flight from Auckland to Tonga will probably be selected next week, MEIDECC CEO, Paula Ma’u said today, 17 June.

The repatriation flight is expected in the first week of July and passengers would be selected based on categories, but nothing is official yet.

“That’s just in my thinking, probably 10 from students, 10 from RSE [seasonal workers], to make the 50, but as long as we address the whole category,” he said.

There will be a joint meeting tomorrow, Thursday, between the National Emergency Management Committee and the National taskforce to look at the criteria for the first 50 passengers. The recommended list will need Cabinet approval.

7,000 Tongans

With around 7,000 Tongans overseas who want to return to Tonga, Paula said that as of this morning, close to 1,000 have registered on the government’s Repatriation Registry.

“That doesn’t include seasonal workers. The Ministry of Internal Affairs are working on registering seasonal workers, and when they do then it’s close to 2,000 [registered].”

There are also 70 public servants stranded overseas, separate to those who were on vacation, or studying on scholarships, or short-term training.

But Paula could not confirm if they had already registered to return to Tonga.

“I haven’t actually looked at the analysis as they may have registered because they are anxious to come back.”

However, he confirmed the government already has “an open border policy and repatriation plan”.

To return more than 7,000 Tongans with only one flight of 50 people every two weeks will not be practical, because Paula said “it’ll take three or four years and it’ll be very costly to quarantine them because government is paying for it”.

“That’s why we are using this model, the 50. If that goes well, it depends on health and their analysis on whether we will increase the number and even the flights.”

Currently, a diversion order for passenger flights issued by the Ministry of Health runs to 12 September, after it was extended for another three months from 12 June.

More repatriation flights

Once the first 50 people repatriated are cleared after 14 days of quarantine at the Tanoa Hotel, Paula explained the second repatriation flight is expected to take place 14 days after the first flight depending on the results of the first group.

Larger groups are not out of the question.

There is a possibility of bringing back groups of seasonal workers from New Zealand and Australia “because they are already in a bubble”.

“So, we may allow them to come and quarantine them together perhaps. But of course, it depends on Health,” he said.

Paula suggested that Tongans who are stranded in other countries outside of New Zealand will need to get to Auckland. But, there is the possibility that Tonga may accept flights from Fiji and Samoa.

“It’s just a matter of time,” said Paula. “If Fiji Airways wants to open up a commercial flight I’m sure very soon we’re going to get a flight from Fiji, even Samoa.”

Contact for Tongans overseas

He advised Tongans overseas who wish to make contact with the Tonga Government, to contact the Tonga Government Representative in the country they are in.

Ministry of Health CEO, Dr Siale ‘Akau’ola confirmed the representative would contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Then from Foreign Affairs to get the concerns analysed to see whether it is a health, economic or social issue before referring to [the] right people.”

He added that Foreign Affairs can refer personal issues related to the repatriation process to the Repatriation Committee chaired by the CSSC - Chief Secretary and Secretary to Cabinet, Edgar Cocker.

Other contacts

Meanwhile, a stranded Tongan who wrote to Matangi Tonga Online, was referred to the lilika [dot] sailosi [at] pmo [dot] gov [dot] to (Leadership Division of the Prime Minster's office), who said “it has been handover to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with their overseas mission office to deal with her.”

There are also some contact details at the unofficial embassypages