In the early days of the American republic, Washington D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood was a bustling (and seedy) port town. The preserve of tobacco traders and millwrights, canal boats and slave merchants, ships entered its harbors from across the Atlantic world: New York, Europe, the West Indies. As they relaxed at pubs and taverns after weeks at sea, the sailors who docked at Georgetown would likely have relayed tales of castaways to each other—real life Robinson Crusoes, trapped on islands far from home for months or years with slim hope of rescue.
Today, Georgetown is better known for historical buildings and high fashion than it is for its nautical history. But on Friday, July 10, a group of about 15 modern-day castaways harkened back to that past when they organized a protest in front of the Mongolian Embassy on M Street NW. Waving small American flags and donning masks, the protesters—who appeared to be almost all Mongolians—plastered cardboard signs in both Mongolian and English to the embassy’s gates as passersby strolled past in the torrid D.C. heat. Inscribed with messages such as “SHAME ON MONGOLIAN GOVERNMENT,” “Stranded 5 months Citizens should be Allowed to RETURN HOME,” and “We miss our family and children,” the signs were a startling reminder of the COVID-19 pandemic’s far-reaching consequences. With the world on lockdown and every country an island, thousands of Mongolians and other foreign nationals have now been marooned in the United States for months—not quite Crusoe, but not far off, either.
“I’ve heard about 2,600 [Mongolians] are stranded here, unfortunately,” Lauren Javins, Co-Director of Friends of Mongolia, a charitable organization, told The Politic in an email correspondence. These include vacationers, students, people visiting family members in the United States, and temporary workers. “There are very few flights back to Mongolia, and those flights are reserved for people with higher status and various connections.”
Mongolia’s limited number of repatriation flights are part of a strategy of strict restrictions on travel that have helped make the country’s coronavirus response one of the most effective in the world—it’s reported only a few hundred imported cases, and no deaths—but they’ve created a harrowing reality for the nearly 10,000 Mongolians worldwide who are trying to return home. The protesters at the Mongolian embassy, Javins said, embody the sentiment that the Mongolian government has not provided adequate assistance to stranded Mongolians in the U.S. Despite the sizable number of Mongolians trapped in the U.S., only two official repatriation flights from the U.S. to Mongolia appear to have taken place as of late July 2020—and the first of them charged its over 250 passengers $2,500 per ticket.
“While hoping for [the] next planes, people now are struggling with even basic needs like affording food and accommodation. I hear many Mongolians are now living on the streets just waiting for the next evacuation planes. Moreover, hundreds of people are now facing issues with U.S. immigration because their visas are expiring or have already expired,” Bukhchuluun Dashzeveg, a Yale PhD candidate from Mongolia, told The Politic in an email correspondence.
Some of those stranded have been able to take refuge within Mongolian-American communities, where food drives, lodging, and fundraising have been organized. But there’s a limit to what can be done about visa regulations, and community members can’t provide unlimited support in the midst of a pandemic. Nor would most of those stranded in the U.S. ask them to. As the protesters’ signs made clear, they’re eager to return to their families at home.
Suvdaa Bat-Erdene is one of those who has protested at the embassy. A native of Ulan Bator, Mongolia, she arrived in the U.S. on a B1/B2 tourist visa on 30 December, 2019. She had planned to stay for a few months, studying the experience of public libraries and museums in the Washington, D.C. region for application to her work at Book World, a nongovernmental organization that encourages reading and library use in addition to organizing biannual book fairs in Ulan Bator each year. Then, a few days before her scheduled return date in early March 2020, Mongolia’s borders closed and stay-at-home orders swept the U.S. All of a sudden, 6,000 uncrossable miles stood between her and her young daughter and elderly mother, both of whom remain in Mongolia. Four months later, she remains stuck in the U.S.
“I spent [the] first 40 days at home without going out once the lockdown started. Reading books, listening to the music, doing exercises including yoga have been key activities for me during this pandemic. Since June, I have [been] actively involved in an advocacy campaign for protecting Mongolians’ right [sic] stranded in the U.S.” Suvdaa told The Politic in an email correspondence.
Suvdaa has confronted financial issues, coped with loneliness and emotional challenges, and struggled with insomnia, mental health problems, and preexisting health conditions. Still, despite the obstacles she’s faced—which also include seeing Book World’s Ulan Bator Book Fair take place without her and being forced to move four times over the course of the pandemic—she’s fought to make getting home a reality.
“I started to host a vlog named “Pandemic Stories” to discuss issues and challenges that Mongolians are facing,” she said. Among its notable guests: the current Mongolian Ambassador to the United States, Otgonbayar Yondon. She’s also helped organize the protests at the Mongolian embassy. The protests, vlogs, and constant work have yielded some results. Near the end of July, Suvdaa was able to leverage her social media presence and connections within the Mongolian community to help fundraise over $2,000 to help nine Mongolians stranded in the Washington, D.C. region get to Seattle, WA, and a flight to Mongolia. But even with that optimistic news, the day when she can return herself may be a ways off yet—even as the clock has long since ticked past her visa expiration date. When asked if she was optimistic about being able to return to Mongolia soon, her answer was cautious and uncertain.
“I might return home within 2020,” she averred.
Mongolia, of course, isn’t the only country with citizens stranded here. From December 2019 through February 2020, an ABC News investigation reported, nearly two million international visitors entered the U.S. from just four countries: China, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom. In March 2020 alone, over 62,000 citizens of various African countries arrived in the U.S. Between those more recent visitors and millions from previous years who might still have had visas at the beginning of the pandemic, thousands of people of various nationalities—Argentinians, Indians, Spaniards, South Africans—ended up trapped in the U.S. as commercial flights ceased and visas expired in March 2020.
For some, especially citizens of developed countries with strong air links to the U.S., the pandemic proved a challenging but surmountable obstacle. Spaniards across the U.S. were able to catch flights from Chicago, IL, to Madrid, Spain, in mid-March 2020; repatriation missions were organized around the same time for other E.U. nationals stuck in the U.S.
For citizens of lower-income and developing nations, like the Mongolians, the process hasn’t been so easy. By May, when the Argentinian government began conducting small-scale repatriation flights, over a thousand Argentinians had been stranded in Miami, FL, for months, many of them in increasingly dire straits. “[I know of people who] had to choose between ‘I buy a computer and work from home or I eat and find a hotel to stay,’” Monica Grande, one of the stranded Argentinians, told NBC News.
In mid-April, the South African Embassy to the United States reported being contacted over 1,000 times by “distressed South African nationals,” and referenced difficulties in chartering repatriation flights from the U.S. to South Africa, which Danielle Paquette described as “astronomically costly,” in an article for the Washington Post. “Getting back to an African country is particularly hard when 34 of the continent’s 57 international airports have closed or dramatically cut flights,” added Paquette.
For the thousands of Indians in the U.S. on now-expired visas, the situation has been even worse than the norm. Students and workers have lost scholarships, jobs, and accommodations. “Indian officials responded that they couldn’t arrange flights for so many people,” when those stranded in the U.S. asked for assistance getting home, wrote Rupa Shenoy in a report for Public Radio International (PRI). And even with an outpouring of support from Indian-American hoteliers, who have worked to arrange temporary lodging for Indian nationals, just getting reliable access to food remains a problem for many of those stranded here, Sudhanshu Kaushik, executive director of the North American Association of Indian Students, told Shenoy.
In spite of the plight many have found themselves in, foreign nationals unwillingly trapped in the U.S. have been mostly off the national radar. With a crisis raging here, few politicians have time for non-voting, non-American temporary residents. In their home countries, they’re seen with more fear than welcome: too expensive to bring back, too risky to keep safe. It’s not an enviable position. But abandoning them is an injustice. Despite the credibility it has lost over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. retains the power to work with the many countries who have citizens stranded here to get them home—and those countries owe it to their citizens to offer them a path home when and where possible.
Crusoe lasted twenty-eight years on his island. In the modern era, twenty-eight days castaway should already have been far too long.