Glimmer of hope for Sheffield students stranded in Peru
There could be light at the end of the tunnel for a group of Sheffield students who were left stranded in Peru after flights back to the UK were cancelled.
Ruth Winston was among 10 students from across the UK, including one of her peers from the University of Sheffield, who travelled to Peru on March 5 to begin a four month volunteering trip working in schools and staying with local families.
But, just days after their arrival, the country officially confirmed its first case of coronavirus and the group were given just 24 hours to leave before the borders shut.
With the British Embassy closed, they faced an anxious wait for news but have finally been given a glimmer of hope after receiving an official message assuring them that the government are working with the relevant authorities in Peru to bring them home.
The message from the British embassy, sent on March 21, said: “The UK Government is working with the Peruvian authorities to organise several repatriation flights for British Nationals to return to the UK over the coming week. The UK Government will help both British Nationals and their dependants.
“You will be aware that the Peruvian Government is currently announcing changes to its management of flights out of Peru, including options for using military airports instead of civilian facilities. We will update you on details as soon as they are available and we are in touch with the Peruvian authorities to secure the necessary permissions.
“We will also require all UK Nationals to pay back a sum of approximately £250 towards this flight by signing an undertaking to repay. No payment will be required before this flight and there will be no immediate deadline for repayment.”
Ruth, who turned 21 while in isolation in Peru, said the message brought mixed emotions for the group – thankful that the end might be in sight, but sad that they had been left stranded without help from the university or the embassy.
She said: “Me and my friends were all very excited to get this message and are really hoping it actually happens.
“I feel mainly very disappointed that this experience wasn't at all how I imagined and just so uncertain, lost and vulnerable. I had just assumed I would receive the support from the embassy and university I needed, but I just got nothing for so long.
“However I have found that my friends, family and the lovely Peruvian family who took me in have been so kind, and have fought for me, finally helping things to get moving.”
Some of the group managed to organise a flight home after first being told to leave Peru, but others, including Ruth, decided to wait and get advice from their universities.
“Suddenly everything happened at once,” Ruth said. “The foreign office advised against all essential travel, and on March 15, the Peruvian president gave an announcement saying the country was going under strict lockdown with closed borders starting the next day.
“The remaining volunteers then had to get Lima and on a flight by midnight on the March 16. Most of us had booked new flights home within the next couple of days after the foreign office advice. But myself and four other students didn't manage to get out because flights were almost impossible to get.”
With the British embassy closed, the five students were left stranded in Peru with no idea when they’d be able to leave.
Ruth said: “The only way all the estimated 400 British nationals here could contact the embassy was through the Facebook page. I personally have never got a response.
“For several very frustrating days the only advice we got from the embassy posted on their page was to contact our airlines and to follow foreign office advice.
“Likewise from my university I was advised to consider getting a flight back. Nobody seemed to understand that a flight was completely impossible because the borders were completely locked and you couldn't leave the house unless it was to go to the supermarket or pharmacy or you could be arrested.”
Ruth says that the embassy eventually suggested a flight, which would cost over $3000 for an economy class ticket, but this never happened.
She added: “They then suggested another flight to France with very limited seats at an even higher price. When other countries were repatriating their citizens for free we all felt completely abandoned by our government.”
It is believed there are over 500 Britons still stranded in Peru.