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German passengers sue government over €94m repatriation bill

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An aircraft lands at Berlin-Tegel airport in Germany on Nov. 5, 2020.
An aircraft lands at Berlin-Tegel airport in Germany on Nov. 5, 2020.   -   Copyright  Christoph Soeder/dpa via AP
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Germans flown home at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in a large scale repatriation effort have initiated legal proceedings against the government after being billed for their travel costs.

More than 60 lawsuits have been lodged against the federal government after nearly 30,000 invoices were sent out to returnees, according to figures released by the German Foreign Office.

The news came to light after the matter was raised in a letter by a Free Democratic Party (FDP) MP, Roman Müller-Böhm.

By mid-December, 28,728 payment notices had been sent, according to a response to Müller-Böhm's query from Miguel Berger, State Secretary in the Foreign Office.

It is not yet known how many of these invoices have already been paid.

In an unprecedented effort, the German government flew 240,000 nationals back to Germany since March 17 after the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared a pandemic and countries around the world went into lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Travellers who had booked their flights through a tour operator were flown home to Germany free of charge. In addition, the Federal Foreign Office also chartered aircraft to bring 65,000 nationals and tourists home from high-risk areas, completing 260 flights from 65 countries by the end of April.

The last chartered plane took off from Cape Town in South Africa on April 24 carrying 157 passengers.

From June, the foreign ministry asked repatriated nationals to pay for their travel arrangements home.

The estimated fares were based on economy class ticket prices on flights from the region of the world the traveller originated.

Repatriate flights from the Canary Islands and North Africa were costed at €200. Fares from Southern Africa and the Caribbean were set at €500 and returnees from South America and Asia had to pay €600 to return home.

German nationals brought back from New Zealand, Australia, or the Pacific islands received an invoice for a flight priced at €1000.

At the time, the Federal Foreign Office believed that those returned to Germany from June onwards would share the burden of up to 40 per cent of the total cost of the estimated €94 million operation under the terms of the Consular Act.

The terms of the law state that, among other things, citizens being repatriated to Germany face sharing the costs of charter flights.

The EU in turn also supported the return of some of the travellers from individual member states through grants.

So far, only around 11 per cent of the costs - totalling around €10.6 million - had been paid back by December 16. Based on government estimates, an outstanding balance of €23 million is still expected to be footed by German nationals who have been brought home.