When I’m talking about escape and evasion as it pertains to some third world country, I’m not talking about running through the streets, hopping from rooftop to rooftop, all while being chased by highly trained government operatives. However, if you’ve participated in that as a citizen, we need to chat.
What I am talking about are the events and situations taking place every day around the world, which would be grounds to vacate a town, region, or country. Unique risks and considerations come with basic travel in third world countries. Events that are easily dealt with at home can turn into disasters when abroad.
Think of things like:
- Natural disaster
- Civil war
- Man-made disasters
- Civil unrest
- Food shortages
- Hostile regime changes
- Violent coups
Has this actually happened?
On top of willingly going to places where there is a potential for the events above to occur, there are folks who have to travel to these areas due to work, etc.
History is dotted with intriguing stories of escape and evasion. Oftentimes, these stories are told by expats who are living abroad.
The experience of one expat who lived through the “fall of Marcos” in the Philippines is enlightening.
“People thought that an open non-restricted ticket was a sure way out. They found, however, that once they’d braved the chaos on the streets to get the airport, that during the evacuation the national carriers were only taking their own citizens, and that tickets or reservations weren’t important. For example, the Singapore Airlines flights were evacuating Singaporeans first, secondly ASEAN citizens and thirdly other citizens. Many people who thought that the most important thing to do would be to make it to the airport found an unexpected problem, there was no food at the airport to feed the many would-be evacuees. Also, that it wasn’t easy in this state of emergency for foreign governments to get clearance for flights coming in to evacuate their citizens. So what did work? The best procedure was to stay in your own home and wait to be contacted by your embassy through the warden system after planes and clearance were arranged. Evacuees were told to go to the location identified by the warden where buses were on standby to take the evacuees to the airport with a military escort.”
Fast forward to May of 1997. In essence, a mutiny of sorts was carried out by soldiers and they ousted President Kabbah. As a result, there was a power grab and rival military factions were engaged in conflict.
One of the tactics carried out by those engaged in this coup was to shut down the airspace in an attempt to keep foreigners in the country. It was speculated this action was an attempt to keep all foreigners in the country to use as hostages.
Despite these efforts, U.S. Marines were able to evacuate approximately 900 foreigners. The evacuees were able to make their escape via a Marine helicopter who then flew them to an amphibious assault ship anchored off the coast.
Once evacuated, the fleeing foreigners were taken to nearby Conakry, Guinea. Once they arrived in Guinea, they were responsible for any additional travel arrangements.
This particular coup was the third in five years, mostly due to decades of civil war, corruption, and political strife.
Let’s take a look at the riots in Indonesia. Essentially, mass violence, disorder, civil unrest, and demonstrations broke out in numerous locations across the country. These events were mainly centered around foot shortages and deteriorating economic problems.
Thousands of foreign nationals and expatriates left, or attempted, to leave Indonesia. A number of them were evacuated by their embassies. The Indonesian government “was no longer in a position to guarantee the security of Americans,” said U.S. Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy.
Many people were simply told to pack and vacate via air. The problems arose when folks arrived at airports only to find long lines and planes that were already full to capacity. People simply could not get seats. There was also a lack of food and water, which caused additional concern and panic.
During the same time, many Indonesians who were trying to escape the chaos were robbed on the way to the airport, as criminals knew they’d be escaping with their gold and cash on hand! Those expats who waited at their homes for their embassy call to go to a safe location and then traveled together by bus (escorted by the Indonesian military) to the military airport, found that their departure, though time-consuming, was relatively organized, hassle-free and safe.
Those “fortunate” enough to be evacuated by flights organized by their embassies found they had very little notice, 12 hours or less, and were typically limited to one bag. They had to leave everything behind and leave in a rapid fashion.
There were reports that if you had enough cash, you could buy your way out of the country on military planes. Something a number of expats and wealthy locals were able to take advantage of. We will talk more about cash a little later in this article.
On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah guerillas kidnapped two Israeli soldiers at Israel’s border with Lebanon. Israel responded the next day with a major military assault, bombing Lebanon’s airport in Beirut and forcing its closure, blockading Lebanon’s ports, and bombing roads and bridges.
Thousands of Americans suddenly found themselves in a hostile situation and in urgent need to escape the country. The State Department and Department of Defense evacuated approximately 15,000 Americans over the course of almost a month.
That is a long time to sit around and wait for someone to save you. I’m not saying it wasn’t the best option at the time. I am saying that most folks don’t have the provisions and supplies to sit around and wait an undetermined amount of time.
As with Indonesia, it was said that people with enough cash were able to pay their way out of the country way ahead of much of the unrest. This was carried out on military aircraft.
There are three good takeaways in reference to the U.S. Government response:
- First, the magnitude of the Lebanon crisis taxed State’s capacity to respond.
- Second, State did not communicate effectively with the public, including potential evacuees in Lebanon and their family and friends in the United States.
- Third, State and DOD’s different institutional cultures and systems impeded their ability to work together; among other things, these differences resulted in miscommunications and possible delays in chartering ships and planes to evacuate American citizens.
A more detailed look at the conditions and the government response can be found here and is as follows:
State Department: The July 2006 Evacuation of American Citizens from Lebanon
Magnitude of the Crisis Taxed State’s Capacity to Respond
State’s emergency guidance and post-specific action plan were quickly overtaken by the speed, severity, and scope of the crisis, and Beirut embassy officials said they did not use them. Nearly every aspect of State’s preparations for evacuation was overwhelmed. For example:
Embassy officials in Beirut told us they did not use the Emergency Planning Handbook or the EAP. The Beirut EAP called for using commercial flights from the airport to evacuate people from the country, but the airport was closed and overland travel was prohibitively risky.
Consular officials had trouble registering the surging numbers of U.S. citizens who had not registered with the embassy before the crisis and were now seeking the embassy’s assistance in getting out of Lebanon.
Five days into the crisis, State suspended its policy of collecting promissory notes from evacuees regarding reimbursement for evacuation-related costs; State officials said they viewed this policy as a potential hurdle in the evacuation process.
State’s Administration Bureau also had difficulty chartering the large volume of flights needed out of Cyprus, and had to turn to TRANSCOM for help. State lacked the manpower, training, and tracking equipment for an operation of this magnitude. For example, State had difficulty determining how many flights it needed.
The email system at the taskforces coordinating the evacuation was overwhelmed. Information was shared primarily by email and all email messages were automatically sent to all taskforce members, making it difficult to prioritize actions or determine which actions had been completed.
Who will save you?
Embassy support for private American citizens depends on the situation. At times, Americans are simply told to “shelter in place” and ride out a crisis and the State Department will ask a neutral embassy in-country, such as the Swiss, to look after its citizens. As a rule of thumb, if a commercial means of departure exists, private citizens must take it. Sometimes, the embassy will help with emergency loans to buy plane tickets or convoys to the airport. In cases where major airlines have suspended flights, but the local airport is still operating, the State Department can arrange charters. In extreme cases, (Yemen was not such a case) the Marines conduct a Noncombatant Evacuation Order (NEO) to pull citizens out of the country using military assets.
Again, while most folks feel it is the government’s responsibility to evacuate them during times of unrest or disaster, they can only do so much. That is where self-preservation comes into play. I believe it is our personal responsibility to make sure we are able to hand our own business to the best of our ability. Sometimes, that calls for taking action and sometimes it calls you to know when to stand down.
What can the State Department do in a crisis?
This is a big question. A lot of folks incorrectly think the State Department will immediately swoop in and save you during a crisis. However, this is not the case.
While they will facilitate things, push out information, offer some support services, and on rare occasion, offer evacuations, the burden and responsibility still fall you.
Let’s take a look at what the Department of State can and can’t do during a crisis in foreign countries.
How can they help during a crisis?
One of the main things the State Department will do is push out information and security updates at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en.html, as well as on the respective embassy and consulate websites. You will also receive alerts via the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) if you are enrolled in that.
The type of information you will receive or have access to will depend on the situation and how it’s perceived by government officials. For instance, as they work through their protocol, they may provide information on unrest or protests or where to seek help if needed.
As conditions get worse or begin to escalate, those warnings may turn into a recommendation to leave. Keep in mind, this is often followed up with “if it is safe to do so”. Again, the ultimate decision is on you and you must be prepared, both mentally and physically, to make the proper call and carry it out.
How to leave during an emergency
The State Department recommends leaving prior to a crisis kicking off if at all possible. I think we can all agree on this one. If you can pick up on what is happening locally and make solid assessments, this may be possible. It will also allow you to take advantage of public/commercial transportation while they are still functional. Communication, which may be compromised later on, should still be effective in facilitating the process.
In their own words, and in extreme situations, if there are no commercial transportation options (planes, trains, boats/ferries, etc.) available, and if we have consular officers at the embassy or consulate, and if the conditions permit, we may help U.S. citizens seeking to depart by working with the host government, other countries, and other U.S. government agencies to identify – and in some cases arrange – available transportation. Regardless of the method of transportation, or who provides it, U.S. citizens (and others who are eligible for U.S. government assistance) are generally responsible for reimbursing the government for the cost of their travel.
Don’t they have to evacuate me?
The short answer is NO. The State Department’s primary role is supplying information. If things get really bad, and all their criteria is met, they may help identify transportation options. However, they are just as likely to recommend you to shelter in place. If this is the case, they will encourage you to stay at a safe location and leave when it’s safe to do so. You are then responsible for finding your own transportation and means of escape.
The U.S. Government has performed evacuations over the years. However, I would not count on this happening and it should not be your only plan.
Sometimes they work with host governments, if stable enough, other countries, and other U.S. agencies in order to facilitate transportation. These options may include land, air, sea, or a combination of methods. While they have coordinated with the U.S. Military in the past, it should not be expected.
If evacuated to a nearby country, some assistance may be offered, but for the most part, you are on your own. Transportation, lodging, and dealing with the host country are all your responsibility. Some information may be provided, but again, you should be prepared to take care of yourself.
Think of things like:
- Other pertinent documentation
- Living expenses
For U.S. citizens who need emergency financial assistance at the evacuation destination, you may ask a consular officer to help you apply for a loan to help with the costs of your accommodations and/or other essential expenses.
While they will do their best to assist within their means, some situations are so dangerous they will not be able to assist with any component of your evacuation. Again, if this happens, you are on your own.
While emergency loans may be available on rare occasions, the U.S. Government WILL NOT pay for your evacuation. You will not be denied boarding during a U.S. organized evacuation, but you will have to sign and form promising to repay all expenses based on the cost of a full-fare economy flight, or comparable alternate transportation, to the designated destination(s) that would have been charged immediately prior to the events giving rise to the evacuation.
Again, you will more than likely be evacuated to a safe location, which may be near the area being evacuated. You are then on your own and need to be prepared to handle the rest of your evacuation details.
Contact the State Department during a crisis
Task Force Alert
Task Fort Alert may be activated during some events and will provide you a way to supply information to the U.S. Government and/or family. The information you provide can be used to offer any emergency assistance available at that time. Keep in mind, it is only a means of providing information. It does not activate or notify any emergency responders.
Another one of the options the State Department may utilize is setting up an email address specific to the crisis you’re affected by. To receive information regarding this email address, you will need to be able to access travel.state.gov to receive it through public messaging. Once your email is confirmed, you should start receiving relevant, up-to-date information as they are able to push it out. You may also receive a checklist of things you will need to provide them so that they can better provide assistance.
You may also call them at 1-888-407-4747 (from the United States and Canada) or +1-202-501-4444 (from overseas). Depending on the severity of the crisis and the number of U.S. citizens affected, hold times to speak to a person may be longer than usual. Please consider using the other crisis-specific contact methods listed above, to include the internet and/or email, to contact them.
What happens if communication is down?
Typical forms of communication (email and phone) are often lost or interrupted during various emergency events. As I discussed in our article on Emergency Communication, if communication is disrupted, you need to have a contingency plan in place to deal with such issues. Prior planning goes a long way.
Outside of you ensuring your own communication capabilities, the State Department may attempt to utilize local media outlets, television, radio, etc., to broadcast information. This is not always possible.
Another method that may be utilized is “Citizen Liaison Volunteers (CLV’s)”. CLV’s are private citizens who volunteer to pass along critical information in designated areas. During a critical emergency, CLV’s may be used to locate and pass information to citizens that are difficult to reach. All of this is dependant on activation and the conditions present during the crisis. If it is too dangerous, CLV’s may not be utilized.
As you can tell, while a number of services are available, they may not be offered each and every time. They are situationally dependent and can vary greatly from incident to incident.
Let’s be honest, these events are rare and the odds of any of us being involved in one are extremely rare. But, they do occur and people are affected by them. Depending on your travel, where you work, etc., you have a higher chance of something like this happening. If so, are you prepared to escape on your own? Even if you are mentally prepared and have made necessary plans, do you have the “stuff” to facilitate the process?
If not, you’re in luck. In our next article on this topic, we will discuss building an escape and evasion (E&E) bag specific to international locations. This would be a good idea for expats, foreign travelers, or those working abroad.