‘It’s Pretty Much Going to Be a Death Sentence’
State Department struggles to bring thousands of stranded Americans home as air travel shuts down from the global coronavirus pandemic.
Ronald Coleman had been stuck in Peru for six days after the country unexpectedly closed its borders when he received an email from the U.S. Embassy that gave him phone numbers for commercial airlines that might be able to transport him out. He immediately called all of them. However, he was shocked to find that on the other end of one of the numbers, instead of an Avianca Airlines representative, he was apparently speaking to a phone sex hotline.
“I don’t know how the State Department screws up that bad, but it was comical at first, I was laughing,” Coleman told Foreign Policy in an interview on March 20. “And then I think about it and immediately my confidence dropped in how they’re handling it and how organized they are in handling this effort.”
Around the world, U.S. citizens are finding themselves stuck in countries that have closed their borders in a bid to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, and in some cases they fear for their lives. For many, the first instinct is to call on the U.S. Embassy for help. But interviews with over a dozen U.S. citizens abroad and their relatives, as well as U.S. officials and congressional aides, paint a picture of a department that was caught off guard by the crisis—even following months of dire warnings from public health officials as the coronavirus spread. U.S. embassies quickly became overburdened with the influx of requests for help from American citizens.
For the lucky ones, this amounts to derailed vacation plans, costly tickets home, or awkward mix-ups with phone numbers. But for others, a ticket home amid the rapidly spreading pandemic has become a matter of life and death, making the State Department’s actions all the more critical.
The State Department has found itself at the epicenter of the U.S. government’s frenetic response to the coronavirus, scrambling to help U.S. citizens marooned abroad while trying to keep its own employees posted across the world safe from the spread of the virus, which has infected over half a million people and led to the deaths of 22,000. State insists it is doing everything it can to help Americans stranded abroad find a way home, and it has already helped secure safe passage back to the United States for thousands.
[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]
“The Department has never before undertaken an evacuation operation of such geographic breadth, scale, and complexity,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement on Tuesday. “We are using all the tools at our disposal to overcome logistical and diplomatic challenges and bring Americans home from hard-to-reach areas and cities hardest-hit by the virus.”
The State Department has helped bring home over 9,000 U.S. citizens from 28 countries so far, said Ian Brownlee, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for consular affairs. It is planning an additional 66 flights over the next nine days to bring home more—so far they have received requests for assistance returning home from 50,000 U.S. citizens abroad. “We’re committed to bring home as many Americans as we possibly can,” Brownlee said.
Some officials and those in Congress say the department is responding as quickly as possible to an unprecedented crisis that has become a massively complex logistical undertaking as commercial airlines scale back their operations. In many cases, the State Department is bailing out American tourists who shouldn’t have been traveling in the first place.
“A substantial percentage of American citizens who needed to be repatriated voluntarily went on vacation when the world was shutting down over this. People were being warned not to travel, and then they did it anyways,” said one Republican congressional aide. “Americans exacerbated the problem by not heeding the warnings they were given.”
The State Department on March 19 issued a Level 4 travel advisory warning all U.S. citizens not to travel internationally, which still remains in place.
Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, praised the department’s response in a statement to Foreign Policy. “Last week, one of my [constituents] called me in a panic because her teenage son was stuck in Honduras with more than a dozen other teenagers after the country shut their borders. Thanks to the State Department’s efforts, the entire group has been safely reunited with their families in Texas,” he said. “We know there are still many Americans currently trapped overseas, but I can assure you the State Department and Secretary Pompeo are working around the clock to bring them home as quickly as possible.”
But with thousands more Americans still stranded, some critics say the State Department’s response has been hampered by a slow initial response, no advance planning, bureaucratic red tape, and disagreements with foreign countries over retrieving U.S. citizens. Americans still stranded abroad back up these criticisms through their own experiences struggling to get help or information from U.S. embassies. For some, the State Department’s travel warnings came too late, as international travel restrictions outpaced embassies’ warnings and their own attempts to find tickets home.
“Some of it is absolutely State’s fault, but some of it is the sheer scale and madness … of this unprecedented crisis,” said the Republican congressional aide.
Powerful Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill are demanding more action from the Trump administration and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “While the scale of the pandemic may not have been entirely predictable, if this administration, including Secretary Pompeo and his senior leadership team, had taken the coronavirus threat seriously and planned ahead, we may have been able to avoid some of the confusion and chaos Americans abroad encountered in their efforts to return home,” Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Foreign Policy in a statement through a spokesperson.
“Unfortunately, that simply did not happen. As a result, the State Department now has to try to catch up and make up for lost time,” he said.
‘If He Stays There…’
Ismail Mousa, a U.S. citizen, and his daughter found themselves caught in a complicated web of border closures and diplomatic wrangling during a trip to visit family in the Palestinian West Bank. Jordan closed its borders with the West Bank on March 10, and, with no airport in the Palestinian territories, their only way out was to fly out through Israel.
In an interview, Mousa’s wife, Michelle Mousa, told Foreign Policy that while their 12-year-old daughter, who was born in the United States, would have been permitted to fly out of an Israeli airport, her husband was barred from entering Israel because he was born in the Palestinian territories and has a Palestinian ID.
“It’s really just shocking to me, the unequal treatment especially between my husband and my child just because of where he happened to be born. A U.S. citizen is a U.S. citizen,” she said.
Compounding the urgency of the situation, Mousa has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung disease that puts him at high risk of getting seriously ill should he contract the coronavirus. He is due to run out of his prescription medication on March 31.
After her husband applied for an airport permit that would grant him permission to fly out of Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, Michelle Mousa asked the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem for assistance with expediting the request and had her husband’s doctor send confirmation of his medical condition to the embassy. In emails seen by Foreign Policy, a member of staff at American Citizens Services informed her that the embassy would not be able expedite the airport permit unless it was a documented medical emergency. “If he stays there, it’s pretty much going to be a death sentence,” Michelle Mousa said.
‘It Just Feels Like We’re in the Dark’
Lummer Dumapat, a resident of Austin, Texas, brought his two children to Peru for the first time because he wanted to teach them to meet their family and to teach them about their heritage. Now, he is left wondering when he will be able to get his family home after almost every flight he has booked has been canceled.
“I was sitting down at dinner yesterday and my little one, my 3-year-old, turns to me and says, ‘Dad, I wanna go home,’” Dumapat said. “And I said, ‘We can’t. We can’t fly home right now.’”
Dumapat also has another child who has asthma. While they did bring an extra emergency inhaler, he is worried about how he will treat his son if he has an asthma attack in this unknown environment. He has been left looking at do-it-yourself videos on YouTube for how to refill inhalers, but he’s hoping it won’t come to that point.
After the announcement was made and his family got stuck in Peru, his wife and his uncle went to the U.S. Embassy in Lima to try to get help.
“They just told us, fill out this form, fill this information out, and that’s it,” Dumapat said in an interview with Foreign Policy on March 20. “When we got back, we found it was the same information we got on Google when we researched it online. There was nothing. It just feels like we’re in the dark. They don’t have a plan of getting us out. We just want to go home.”
‘It Was Virtually Impossible to Get in Touch’
These and other stories have filtered their way into Capitol Hill, where with mounting anger lawmakers have asked the Trump administration to do more to help bring home U.S. citizens trapped abroad. Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Sunday called on Trump to activate a reserve air fleet to bring home Americans stranded in countries that have closed their borders. The Civil Reserve Air Fleet is a U.S. Defense Department program that partners with commercial airlines to make 30 percent of its air fleet available for emergency evacuations. At least 517 aircraft should be available for international passenger flights, according to the Air Force website.
A State Department official said that the Civil Reserve Air Fleet is one option under consideration if the situation for Americans abroad worsens, but others caution that there are logistical hurdles that make it difficult to do so. This includes securing enough flight crews, medical staff, and approvals from foreign countries to land the planes if the fleet is activated.
A top Republican lawmaker said the department has been responsive to other requests. “My staff and I have been in constant contact with the State Department and a number of our embassies in an effort to help bring home Americans abroad who have suddenly been left with limited, if any, exit options,” Sen. Jim Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Foreign Policy. “The department has been responsive in nearly every case, and I appreciate all the hard work done by our State Department employees so far.”
As many countries close their borders for the long haul, the State Department has announced that U.S. citizens should register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) for future assistance.
However, some Americans abroad who have signed up for STEP told Foreign Policy they received little or no communication from the State Department in recent weeks, hampering their efforts to return home and, in some cases, relying on other Western governments instead for help.
Some U.S. travelers who found themselves stuck in Morocco after the country closed its borders with little forewarning were able to secure seats on flights organized by the British ambassador to Morocco before the United States was able to arrange repatriation flights for Americans. “My understanding was that British citizens had priority, but if the flights were not filled other people could jump on,” said Bob Ngu, a Californian who paid $385 to join the British flight to London and from there was able to book a flight on a commercial airline to San Francisco.
Zain Sandhu, an American studying abroad in Morocco, flew out on a French airlines flight that took him and seven others in his program to Paris before getting a connecting flight back to the United States. The flight was in part arranged by the French consul, who, immediately after Morocco announced that it was banning international flights, began coordinating with airlines on flights to repatriate French citizens.
“Basically the day we found out that Morocco had suspended all international flights and during the days after, it was virtually impossible to get in touch with the U.S. Embassy,” Sandhu said. “Even the staff leading our program couldn’t get in contact with them, and they supposedly had connections there.”
It was days later that U.S.-chartered flights began leaving Morocco. On March 21, the last U.S.-chartered flight was allowed to leave Morocco, and commercial flights have since been suspended.
Those who took U.S. Embassy-arranged flights back to the United States were made to sign a promissory note agreeing to pay the government the equivalent of a full-fare economy flight to cover the cost of repatriation—to the tune of around $1,500. A copy of the agreement seen by Foreign Policy states that if they fail to pay, they may be prevented from obtaining a U.S. passport.
U.S. embassies have also struggled with severe logistical challenges when attempting to evacuate citizens who are often spread all over the closed country and in remote locations. They also face resistance from foreign countries’ governments themselves. Over the weekend, Politico reported that the Peruvian government was refusing to allow U.S. citizens to leave until they received assurances that thousands of Peruvian citizens will be able to return from the United States.
A State Department spokesperson said in a statement on Tuesday that the Peruvian government had even actively blocked the U.S. government’s attempts to bring home American citizens, reflecting the type of logistical challenges State faces in bringing citizens home. “On March 24, the Peruvian government declined to approve permits for a charter flight operated by American Airlines that departed Miami with a scheduled arrival in Lima that afternoon,” the spokesperson said. “Unable to receive the appropriate clearances, the pilot returned the airplane to Miami. The Peruvian government also failed to provide the proper clearances for a LATAM flight to pick up Americans stranded in Cusco.”
By Wednesday, the State Department helped bring home over 1,000 Americans from Peru, said Brownlee, the State Department official. “Senior U.S. officials are maintaining constant communication with the Government of Peru and working around the clock to secure authorization for more flights this week, as well as authorization for U.S. citizens in more remote parts of Peru to travel to Lima by land or by air,” he said.
‘We Were on Our Own’
Other Americans abroad waited for days for any information from U.S. embassies but ultimately gave up and had to find ways to rescue themselves. Ray Bahr and Beth Rosenzweig became stranded while on vacation in Honduras when the Honduran government instituted travel restrictions as the pandemic spread. Though they signed up with the State Department’s STEP registry, they couldn’t reach the U.S. Embassy and only received two generic emails from the embassy that “basically made it clear we were on our own,” Rosenzweig said.
With virtually no information from the State Department or embassy, they resorted to finding their own way out with other stranded tourists via WhatsApp chat groups while holed up in a hotel room under lockdown—monitoring the chat groups for up to 18 hours a day in a bid to find a ticket home to Massachusetts. They saw that the U.S. Embassy organized a flight out for an American women’s soccer team from the country but heard of no other options for other citizens for over a week. They simultaneously bought tickets on American, United, and Delta airlines, but one by one those flights were canceled, despite efforts by local Honduran officials to help them. Meanwhile, they saw other tourists from Canada swiftly find flights home with the help of the Canadian Embassy, while they remained stuck in place. “Throughout all of this, the American State Department was nowhere to be seen,” Bahr said.
Eventually, they found their way out, not through the U.S. government but by banding together with another group of Americans in Honduras who worked for a major American corporation. That corporation that helped organize a pricey charter flight to Miami on Sunday through a global corporate security firm, which apparently pushed through the Honduran government’s red tape for flight approvals more quickly than the U.S. government could.
They faced strict medical screenings at the airports in Honduras. When they landed in Miami, “no one checked our temperatures or seemed concerned about where we had come from, and the presence of masks and gloves was incredibly minor compared to what we experienced in [Honduras],” Rosenzweig said.
She said she is now receiving more regular updates from the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, which is “giving the [government] credit for organizing flights out for Americans via the commercial airlines and through [the private global security company]” that they relied on to return home.
But without a combination of happenstance, luck, and meeting the right people, they still could have been trapped in Honduras, she said. If the company hadn’t helped organize that route out, they’re “not sure what would have happened.”
After Rosenzweig returned home, she wrote an email including five lessons she learned from the experience: “Money talks,” “It’s ‘who you know’—not what you know,” “Communication is vital,” “Make friends with the locals and they will be your allies,” and, perhaps the most important one: “There’s no place like home.”
Darcy Palder is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @DPalder
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer