Insight and Analysis from Foreign Affairs Practitioners and Scholars

Established 1996 • Beatrice Camp, Editor

Editor’s note: The first US Government evacuation flight was organized in late January from Wuhan. A plane carrying 195 State Department employees, their dependents and other US citizens arrived Jan. 29 at March Air Reserve Base in Southern California. Two months later, many other posts were focused on similar efforts to send American citizens home.

As NBC reported on March 31, “the global coronavirus shutdown has created an unparalleled challenge for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development that they never anticipated:  Evacuating American workers from nearly every corner of the globe, all at the same time. International commercial air travel — the preferred method for evacuating diplomats in a crisis — has slowed to a total halt in some places. Charter flights that can be arranged can’t reach every corner of the world. And there are still tens of thousands of U.S. citizens stuck abroad who need help getting home from U.S. embassies and consulates before diplomats can start returning in large numbers.”

The following accounts are excerpted from news stories and social media posts.

State Magazine, April 2020

By mid-October 2019, the dedicated team at the U.S. Consulate General in Wuhan knew that the city had been struck by what was thought to be an unusually vicious flu season. The disease worsened in November. When city officials began to close public schools in mid-December to control the spread of the disease, the team passed the word to Embassy Beijing and continued monitoring. The possibility of a new viral outbreak was always on the consulate’s radar. Still, the working assumption in every scenario had always been that, as in past outbreaks like H1N1 (known as swine flu), it would appear in rural areas first and then spread to major urban centers across China.

US Consulate staff provide luggage handling instructions to US citizen evacuees at the Wuhan airport on January 28

El Salvador March 29

With the entire embassy engaged in Mission Priority #1 – helping U.S. citizens, we’ve been able to all pull in one direction and get some impressive things done. To start, today will be our fifth arranged repatriation flight, quite a diplomatic feat given the closed airport. We’ve made and taken untold thousands of calls from U.S. citizens and permanent residents wanting to get back home. We’ve set up web pages for information, created flight manifests, and sent out emergency MASCOT messages to the U.S. citizen community.

Nigeria March 30

This week’s repatriation flights concluded yesterday as 281 American citizens departed Lagos for home. Thanks to a tremendous effort by the Consulate Lagos team and great cooperation from our Nigerian partners, including the Ministry of Aviation, airport authorities, the Immigration Service, and the State Government, in addition to Ethiopian Airlines and Delta Air Lines, 850 Americans were able to join friends and family back in the U.S. They join 147 who departed Abuja last Saturday. It was truly a team effort in which everyone can be proud.

Bangladesh March 31

Last week, the airlines stopped offering flights out of the country. Thousands of private American citizens are still in the country, many of them wanting to return to the United States.

When that happens, our standard procedure is to find a way to get U.S. citizens home. We have a few different options. We can work with airlines to open new commercial flights, or we can organize a charter flight. In some (very extreme, very complicated, and very, very expensive) cases, we can work with the military. That last scenario really only happens when there is a complete breakdown in social order, and the country is on the brink of war. Things are not that bad here in Bangladesh, and no one really expects the situation to deteriorate that much.

So we went with the best option that was available to us: organizing a charter flight.

I’m not embarrassed to admit that I am not an airline. I have no idea how to take reservations for a flight, coordinate with an airline and airport authorities, prioritize a passenger list, check people in for flights, and tell people on standby to sit down and wait for me to call them. But that’s what I have been working on for the last week or so. Working with a huge team of my fellow officers, and our locally-engaged staff from the Embassy, we put in 12- to 14-hour days. We had to build a manifest by taking emails and phone calls, then calling people, calling them again, and then calling them a third time. Another group negotiated with an airline to contract a special flight. We had to coordinate with the local authorities to get permission for the plane to land. A million little details that we had to learn on the fly…

Hundreds of people showed up to get on the plane. Yes, some citizens got upset, some complained, some were indignant at the inconvenience, a few didn’t think they should have to pay for the ticket, etc, etc. The Ambassador told me a few days ago: “We don’t have the luxury of being irritated.” And he was right. Our job was to project a cool, calm manner, and to try our hardest not to add to the noise….

At the end of a very long day, after a very long week, we got a few hundred Americans on the plane back to the United States. And that’s what it’s all about: being there for U.S. citizens.

The US Embassy in Dhaka organized three repatriation flights between March 30 and April 13.

India, April 9

A 21 day lockdown was announced starting on Wednesday, March 25th. Along with the lockdown, airspace was also shut down. Nothing could take off or land, internationally or domestically. Movement was greatly restricted in the city via the presence of police check-points. If you weren’t deemed essential, you weren’t getting through. For the first week, this really impacted the food supply, which caused a lot of panic. Eventually the appropriate government documents were acquired by food suppliers enabling them to deliver again. So that was good.

Throughout this whole debacle, I wavered on what was the best course of action for our family. I had initially intended to stay in India and ride it out, but as the days passed and my mental health deteriorated, I found myself longing for the comfort of America. By that point it was too late to leave though, as commercial flights had already stopped. But then came some good news – the government of India had agreed to let the US government charter commercial flights to repatriate Americans living in India back to the U.S.

It was a massive undertaking and our consular team worked miracles to make it happen. ….[W]e also sent buses out to our consular districts like Goa and Gujurat (places 10-15 hrs away) to pick up American Citizens that wanted to leave. They wouldn’t have otherwise been able to get to Mumbai due to all the driving restrictions that were in place.

Russia

-April 2

We have a few Fulbright and other exchange students to assist still, but the 14-year-old Bolshoi Ballet student managed to depart yesterday via Byelarus and Amsterdam and is now safe at home in the U.S. One down, a half dozen to go.

-April 7

We got a lot done today, and most important of all, we managed to get over 100 American citizens — who had been stranded here for several days when all flights shut down — onto an Aeroflot jet and safely on their way home. Still more to help depart in the days to come, but we are all very grateful that the first group was finally able to leave a bit after 7 pm tonight. Most of our Consular Section team, and dozens of Embassy volunteers, worked through the weekend and through most nights this week to make this happen. This is diplomacy’s finest hour, when our efforts are finally able to rescue Americans in need.

-April 8

We are celebrating the imminent departure (we hope) of our charter flight evacuating American citizens, which is due to leave Moscow for London at 5 a.m. tomorrow morning. A lot of my Embassy colleagues have been working around the clock since last Friday to make this possible. Along with the 100+ who made it onto a surprise Aeroflot flight to JFK last night (successfully), we hope tomorrow morning’s charter helps everyone who wants to return home get there safely. It may be the last opportunity for a while.

-April 9

Our charter flight to evacuate American citizens seeking to leave Russia successfully took off just after 5 am. A lot of our Embassy staff worked day and night for the past week to make this happen, and some of them spent all night at Sheremyetovo Airport to help the passengers get through customs and security and get on board; we also passed out free facemasks and sanitizer to all of them.

Embassy Moscow airport team, with Ambassador Sullivan in the center, after hearing the “Wheels up!” announcement on April 9. Photo by Damian Wampler

 

Liberia April 12

Wednesday we headed to the airport before sunrise, where we boarded 250+ private U.S. citizens along with 50+ embassy personnel. It was a huge effort, made more difficult by private U.S. citizens who ignored luggage limits and also packed contraband items such as gallons of palm oil and dried fish in their luggage — all of which had to be unpacked before boarding. The flight ended up being late….

Thursday was another round of building manifests and making confirmation calls for another flight on Friday, a smaller manifest of “only” 100….

… the only support we have at the airport are people to take the baggage and put it on the plane, and people to help the handicapped passengers. There are no ticket agents or fancy bag tags. My consular crew checks in passengers from our printed copies of Excel spreadsheets. After check-in, they move to John’s luggage check-in tables, where embassy staff checks them off a print-out, and puts a piece of duct tape on the luggage with their assigned number. It’s an evacuation charter flight – no frills, and it’s all on us.

Chengdu April 13

An update from Mission China, where we’ve been hard at work helping get much needed PPE and medical supplies to the United States. Over the Easter weekend, our 16th FEMA flight in the past two weeks was loaded and departed for home with more coming every day. We’ve also been working to ensure that FedEx, UPS and other air cargo carriers can get in and out without pilots getting tangled up by Chinese testing and quarantine requirements and trying to help shippers comply with changing Chinese customs requirements.

Time Magazine April 20

The 24/7 crisis cell, run by State’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Ian Brownlee, coordinates a global, multi-agency team that has rented boats for Americans marooned on the Amazon, redirected a U.S. plane monitoring the illegal drug trade in Latin America to ferry Americans from remote areas to larger airports, and sent a bus to the edge of the Sahara to fetch American campers.

Department of State Coronavirus Repatriation Statistics April 30   

https://www.state.gov/coronavirus/repatriation/

The Department of State is rising to meet the historic challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, every day, all over the world. The U.S. Government has no higher priority than the protection of American citizens.

  • The U.S. Department of State has coordinated the repatriation of 74,373 Americans on 784 flights from 126 countries and territories.
    • On April 29, a charter flight with nearly 220 passengers from India landed in the United States.
    • Nine flights departed from South and Central America, repatriating over 840 Americans on April 29.
  • Since Saturday March 21, we have received more than 65,000 calls to the Department of State’s call center.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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