U.S. Citizens Abroad Frustrated by Lack of Help From Embassies Amid Pandemic

Democratic lawmakers express “urgent concern” to Pompeo about failure to assist with flights and information.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a press conference.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington on Feb. 5. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

American citizens abroad aren’t getting the support they need from U.S. embassies and consulates as they scramble to return home amid the global coronavirus outbreak, a group of Democratic lawmakers says, raising new questions about the State Department’s handling of the pandemic that has shaken worldwide trade and ground most international travel to a standstill. 

Nine Democratic senators wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday expressing “urgent concern” about Americans abroad who are trying to return to the United States as the pandemic prompts countries to restrict international travel. They wrote that Americans in countries including Honduras, Peru, Tunisia, and Morocco “have reported to our offices that they are encountering difficulties in obtaining support from U.S. Embassies and Consulates, including to arrange commercial flights home.”

“In some cases, they are reporting that they are unable to establish contact with, or receive even basic information from, U.S. Embassy personnel,” according to the letter, written by Sens. Bob Menendez, Ben Cardin, Chris Murphy, Edward Markey, Tim Kaine, Jeff Merkley, Christopher Coons, Cory Booker, and Tom Udall—all Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Republican senators were not approached to sign the letter, according to several congressional staffers familiar with the matter. 

The letter reflects the growing strain the pandemic has placed on the State Department, as well as mounting frustrations among Democrats in Congress over Pompeo’s handling of the crisis, including a lack of communication with the public and lawmakers overseeing his department. 

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Pompeo said in a press conference on Tuesday that the department was prioritizing the health and safety of American citizens and U.S. diplomats, though he declined to go into specific details. “I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the intricacies of what the State Department’s doing. It is a rapidly evolving situation,” he said. “State Department officials—and every American—should know we’re going to do everything we can to take care of our team.” 

The lack of communication has drawn criticism both inside and outside the State Department, even as department officials have worked overtime in recent months to respond to the crisis, including organizing evacuation flights for American citizens out of China and from cruise ships abroad that were hit with the virus. 

The State Department “has no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas. We are aware the governments of several countries have announced suspension of air travel,” a State Department spokeswoman said. “We are considering all options to assist U.S. citizens in these countries. We are continuously assessing travel conditions in all areas affected by COVID-19, and will continue to update our travel advisories and safety information for U.S. travelers as situations evolve.

The State Department recommends Americans abroad monitor the relevant U.S. embassy’s website for new information, enroll in the department’s traveler program to receive latest embassy updates, follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance as well as directives from local health authorities, check with airlines regarding disruptions in travel plans, and monitor the department’s website dedicated to coronavirus response.

While acknowledging the State Department is “under immense strain to meet the many demands related to COVID-19,” the lawmakers asked Pompeo for an “immediate briefing” on what the department was doing to “ensure that every American can be safely returned home.” 

They also said that public pronouncements from the department are sowing confusion among Americans trying to return home. “Recent statements by Department officials and press reports that it will not, as a matter of course, provide chartered flights home, have led to confusion among many Americans overseas,” the lawmakers wrote. “In addition, existing travel advisories do not seem to account for the spread of coronavirus, which is only adding to confusion among many Americans overseas.”

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. 

Last week, the State Department issued a global travel advisory urging Americans to reconsider traveling abroad as the coronavirus spread from China to over 160 countries worldwide. The State Department also authorized its personnel and their family members deemed at higher risk from the virus to return home to limit the coronavirus’s impact on the U.S. diplomatic corps.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer