With travellers and expatriates stranded around the world as states close borders and lock down airspace in the effort to combat coronavirus, questions have arisen around the oft-misunderstood topic of emergency repatriation operations. In this piece, Lewis Tallon examines the mechanics of repatriation operations through the state, military and corporate lenses.
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The British government has deployed £75m to repatriate an estimated 30,000 British citizens stranded overseas, while the U.S. government has completed 57,931 repatriations since January. 130,000 French citizens are reported to have been stranded, with the government scrambling to triage these cases between various chartered airlines and the Armée de l’Air’s dedicated crisis and disaster response Esterel Squadron. The European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism has also repatriated 30,000 EU citizens, often aboard flights organised by multiple members, carrying mixtures of European nationalities. Despite these monumental efforts, the unprecedented intensity of the ongoing crisis has placed enormous strain on rarely-tested repatriation systems. Whereas a typical crisis repatriation is limited to a single disaster-zone, the global nature of the coronavirus pandemic has overwhelmed charter capacity, and airspace closures have led to fierce access negotiations by various governments. All the while, the operation has been complicated by the risk of further spreading the infection. The stresses of this situation have been weaponized in some cases, with riots in Ukraine having been triggered by likely Russian-driven misinformation operations surrounding Ukrainian evacuees from Wuhan.
Evacuations in “Peacetime”
Typically, with a localised crisis such as a war or natural disaster, repatriation efforts are a simpler affair (although even these remain highly complex operations involving multiple elements of government). During such an evacuation, multiple states will focus on evacuating citizens from a single city, state or region, chartering aircraft from civilian airlines or requesting military “Non-combatant Evacuation Operations“.
An example of this was witnessed during the Arab Spring, amid which 34,000 British travellers found themselves caught in the centre of an uprising in Egypt. At the time, the regional evacuations prompted by the crisis were considered some of the largest peacetime operations handled by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), and resulted in 570 additional FCO staff being assigned to the existing Middle East and North Africa Directorate (MENAD) to assist with coordinating repatriations.
As the Arab Spring began, the FCO placed British diplomatic staff on heightened alert across the region. This began with relatively standard enhanced security measures, such as the transfer of diplomatic staff from “civilian” accommodation throughout regional cities to secure Embassy residences and vetted hotels in the surrounding areas. As the situation intensified, additional security support was requested from the host-nation authorities, with a particular focus placed on Egypt given the proximity of the British Embassy in Cairo to Tahrir Square (the epicentre of the revolution). For the Cairo Embassy, more detailed plans were drafted for a complete evacuation in case the Embassy was overrun.
As the situation developed, the next step was the evacuation of the dependants of diplomatic staff and non-essential personnel, with 10 being exfiltrated from Tunis and 90 from Cairo. At this point, the FCO issued a notice that all British travellers on “non-essential travel” should return to the UK, and – following the cancellation of multiple commercial flights – eventually chartered evacuation flights to assist citizens who had been unable to leave via commercial routes. In this example, the British government was relatively well prepared to evacuate diplomatic staff and expatriates, having learned important lessons in Libya. For tourists, who comprised the largest portion of the evacuees, this was a more complex matter, as their presence in-country needed to be identified, validated, and contact with the FCO needed to be established. Many tourists were reluctant to engage with the Embassy and FCO, fearing their vacations would be cut short.
Despite the relative success of the Arab Spring repatriation operations, key lessons were still learned. Most notably, the government struggled to secure sufficient charter capacity to evacuate diplomatic staff and citizens in a timely manner, given the context of civil unrest engulfing multiple nations simultaneously. Landing options at the most heavily-used airports such as Cairo International were also difficult to secure, as multiple nations sought to get their staff and citizens out first. Locating citizens also proved problematic, as no option was socialised at the time for tourists and business travellers to register their presence in the region ahead of time, such as that offered to the expatriate community.
The Last Flights Out of Wuhan
The early days of the coronavirus crisis, in which the outbreak was largely limited to the Chinese city of Wuhan, huge numbers of evacuation flights departed from the city’s Tianhe Airport, bringing thousands of foreign citizens home from the epicentre of the crisis.
As the gravity of the situation in Wuhan became clearer, the UK launched one of the first evacuation operations for citizens in the city. A charter was deployed to Wuhan with military medics embarked to conduct testing and monitoring, given fears that the evacuees might themselves bring the virus to the UK. After their arrival at RAF Brize Norton in England, the passengers were quarantined at a segregated block of a local Hospital. Other EU citizens – evacuated as part of the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism, which the UK remains a part of until December 31 throughout the Brexit Transition Period – were flown onward to Spain from RAF Brize Norton. A further 150 British citizens were expected on the flight, however the Chinese government announced that any dual citizens holding a Chinese passport could not leave. Shortly before the departure of the UK evacuation flight, this decision was reversed due to diplomatic pressure from the FCO, however word came too late and these individuals missed the evacuation flight.
Other nations’ evacuation flights also ran into difficulties, as states became increasingly concerned about the risk of contamination by evacuees. A German Luftwaffe evacuation flight (which was also used to bring large quantities of PPE donations to China) carrying 102 German and 26 other EU citizens from Wuhan to Frankfurt was denied landing permission in Moscow, despite originally having been granted refuelling clearance by the Russian government. Two of the evacuees later tested positive for the virus during their quarantine period at Germersheim military barracks.
Spreading the virus via evacuation flights is a valid concern (so much so that the WHO has issued advice to governments on the topic), and such a scenario occurred with 36 positive cases from amongst the first French evacuees from Wuhan. A further 16 foreign nationals from the same French-led evacuation flight also began displaying symptoms, and were repatriated to their respective nations. These “infection-by-evacuation” risks have been addressed in different ways by various governments. India’s first evacuation flight, from Wuhan to Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi was a more cautious affair, bringing 324 “asymptomatic-only” Indian nationals directly back under the supervision of embarked doctors, followed by a quarantine in the Indo-Tibetan Border Force barracks in Chhawla. Six Indian nationals were removed from the flight prior to departure due to high temperatures.
“Asymptomatic evacuations” are not always an option, and in some cases the evacuation of infected individuals is a necessity, despite significantly complicating operations. Only three militaries in the world have the capability to conduct long-distance airborne bio-hazard evacuations; the U.S. Air Force, the UK’s Royal Air Force and Italy’s Aeronautica Militare. This has caused further complications in repatriating known-infected citizens, as states have proven reluctant to share such rare-yet-critical capabilities.
Fig 1.0 – ATI pod (Via Italian MoD)
Italy deployed this capability in mid-February, evacuating a citizen from Wuhan who was unable to board an earlier repatriation flight after becoming symptomatic. On February 10, a specialised Boeing KC-767A transport aircraft attached to the Aeronautica Militare’s 14° Stormo (Wing) departed from Pratica di Mare Air Base carrying a highly specialised bio-containment system known as an “Air Transit Isolator” (ATI). An ATI is a self-contained isolation pod designed to transport patients while protecting aero-medics, flight crew and even the highly sought-after aircraft itself from exposure to infection or contamination. The Italian Air Force had developed experience in the deployment of ATIs during the Ebola crisis in West Africa, having repatriated Italian medical staff who developed symptoms after working at medical facilities in Freetown. Prior to this, in 2006, a similarly-equipped Aeronautica Militare C-130J repatriated an individual suffering from a severe form of pulmonary tuberculosis that had proven resistant to treatment.
The UK’s Royal Air Force operates similar systems, which it also deployed to repatriate medical staff during the Ebola crisis, aboard the A400M Atlas transport aircraft, while the U.S. Air Force operates it’s “Transport Isolation System” aboard the C-17 Globemaster fleet, as well as the C-130H and C-130J series aircraft.
The European Civil Protection Mechanism
While many states are limited in their repatriation capabilities, or are simply out-bid by larger, wealthier states in the scramble to secure privately-owned charter capacity, mechanisms like the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism (EUCPM) exist to improve disaster response by sharing the load between EU member states (in addition to the non-EU members Iceland, Norway, Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Turkey).
Fig 2.0 – European Civil Protection Mechanism Activations For Coronavirus (via Europa.eu)
Prior to the coronavirus crisis, the EUCPM had responded to 330 requests for assistance since being launched in 2001. As part of the present crisis, 11 states have requested support from the EUCPM, resulting in the repatriation of over 30,000 individuals, regional PPE sharing, the transfer of patients to other EU states, and the deployment of medical personnel to the hardest-hit regions in the Union.
As governments often find themselves constrained in their reaction to crises, in part due to the larger scale of the demand placed on them and the political ramifications of acting too early or too severely, corporate security and crisis management organisations also often run repatriation operations for business travellers and expatriate workers. Despite this, the scale of the coronavirus crisis has also placed significant strain on corporate groups. Plans that have typically been designed with narrow-focus natural disasters, terrorism or armed conflict-type scenarios in mind often rely on an availability of assets that have rapidly been swallowed up by unprecedented global demand. Additionally, mass airspace closures have proven problematic to corporate evacuation planners, and the lack of diplomatic resources in the corporate world has compounded the issue. Additionally, while a government evacuation plan will focus on a single group of citizens (or allied group of citizens as with the EUCPM), corporate organisations often employ a wide range of nationalities, adding visa and reception complications to the list of challenges.
While evacuation operations themselves are complex, the decision-making mechanisms for launching an evacuation are often even more nuanced. An organisation evacuating a territory too early, or unnecessarily might lose vital business or face political repercussions. While evacuating is a costly measure, recovery from an evacuation can be even more financially impactful. In some circumstances, the evacuation operation itself can also carry significant security risks through forcing personnel to make dangerous road movements, and may in many cases be deemed more dangerous than simply sheltering-in-place. As such, the corporate security intelligence teams of organisations deployed to riskier regions will often develop a range of “triggers” to assist in decision-making around geopolitical, security or safety developments. These are explicitly-stated events or circumstances that would preclude launching an evacuation. An example of this might be as follows:
- Level One: Caution – Begin Preparations
- Small-scale civil unrest and demonstrations are observed, raising concerns that the local security situation is deteriorating. The organisation would begin monitoring the situation weekly and making slow-time preparations for a possible evacuation and would conduct regular crisis team drills.
- Level Two: Alert – Evacuate Dependants and Families
- The civil unrest movement has reached a larger scale, and residential/commercial areas are increasingly impacted by protests. The organisation would begin removing the family members of expatriate workers from the area.
- Level Three: Crisis – Evacuate Non-Essential Personnel
- The civil unrest movement has now reached insurrection levels, with frequent violence targeting local law enforcement and government entities. Movement throughout the territory becomes increasingly difficult. The organisation would now remove all non-essential personnel, and finalise staging for a full withdrawal should the situation continue to escalate.
- Level Four: Force Majeure – Complete Cessation of Operations
- What was previously civil unrest and insurrection has escalated to a factional civil war, making the organisation’s position in the territory untenable. At this point, the organisation would likely declare “Force Majeure” and cease all operations. All remaining staff and any essential materiel would be evacuated. The specifics of this stage would be heavily influenced by whether or not a later reoccupation of local facilities is anticipated, and when such a reoccupation is expected to be safely possible.
In a high risk location, a version of this trigger mechanism would likely be drafted by the corporate security intelligence team for all foreseeable crises: civil unrest, coup d’état, terrorism, armed conflict, natural disaster, declining levels of law and order, extreme political change and shifts in international relations.
Once the trigger had been pulled, an evacuation would typically run through several streams. Firstly, commercial flights are the primarily favoured evacuation method in places where they remain a viable and safe option, especially for earlier stages of the process such as the repatriation of dependants and families. Large corporations typically employ dedicated travel teams or booking vendors with the ability to secure large numbers of seats, even during periods of high demand. For more complex evacuations, especially those coming later in the process such as final withdrawals of essential personnel, charter flights can be deployed for evacuations. These carry heavy costs and are vulnerable to overwhelming demand, and as such are typically used sparingly, even by the largest and most well-resourced organisations. Additional options that are also often considered are more specialised evacuations, such as via road and maritime routes.
Another major consideration is the reception of evacuated staff. An organisation cannot simply evacuate staff without planning for their post-evacuation needs. This can be extremely complex, as visas for the receiving nation often need securing for a wide range of nationalities, often at extremely short notice. Housing and further support requirements are also needed, however operations such as these are typically passed over to Human Resources functions within the organisation.
The coronavirus crisis has unsurprisingly placed extreme pressure on corporate security organisations as well as governments. While typically an organisation might maintain robust relations and agreements with charter service vendors and commercial airlines, the scale of this crisis has caused a surge in demand at a time of simultaneously-diminishing supply. Airspaces across the world are closing, airlines are placing fleets into hibernation, and government assistance is stretched to its limits. Despite this, the sudden collapse of airline demand from private and non-emergency business travel has freed up significant airline capacity for charter operations, which has been a critical lifeline for large corporations requiring mass repatriations.
Evacuations, repatriations and exfiltrations are a poorly-understood concept at the best of times, with many around the world now expressing shock at the delays in securing a place aboard government flights, or at having to pay for seats. In recent weeks, the concept of repatriation has become significantly more scrutinised as nations, airlines, militaries and corporate organisations scramble to repatriate those stranded against the ticking clock of further airspace closures and mounting infection numbers. The scale of the coronavirus crisis – with some estimates suggesting stranded travellers numbering in the millions – means that this is likely to be an ongoing operation globally for much of 2020. Despite this, and despite the enormous costs, these operations are critical. Across much of the developing world, local healthcare systems are already struggling to bear the challenge of the pandemic, and the repatriation of foreigners will ease the pressure on these systems. Elsewhere, hostile atmospheres have developed around foreigners as suspicion and fear have replaced hospitality. On the individual level, families have found themselves separated, and the small world once again feels big. Inter-organisational, inter-governmental and supra-national cooperation will be tested on an unprecedented scale, but should it fail, the implications could be dire for those stranded.
Suggested e-learning courses related to this topic:
- Humanitarian Response to Conflict and Disaster – Harvard University
- Lessons from Ebola: Preventing the Next Pandemic – Harvard University
- Epidemics I & II – Hong Kong University
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
- Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus (David Quammen)
- Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond (Sonia Shah)
- America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (Alfred W. Crosby)
- Dust to Deliverance: Untold Stories from the Maritime Evacuation on September 11th (Jessica DuLong)
Additional geopolitical reading suggestions can be found on our 2020 reading list
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Lewis Tallon is a former British Army Intelligence Officer with extensive experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa region and Asia Pacific in security, geopolitical, armed conflict and threat intelligence roles. Lewis currently specialises in providing EMEA-region geopolitical intelligence support to the technology sector, the oil & gas industry, and the financial services world.
For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.
Photo: U.S. Department of Defense Photo – Haitian evacuees wait to board a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft