Photo from Briefly.com
Hopefully you will do your research and take the necessary precautions and never have a problem when you travel to another country. But sometimes the unexpected happens. There is an earthquake or a tsunami. Or a coup. Then what do you do? If the situation is really bad, what will the US Embassy do to help you leave the country?
The current situation in Burundi is a good opportunity to look at what an embassy does to assist US citizens to leave the country and how the evacuation process works.
The process usually starts with a travel warning. The May 14th Burundi Travel Warning states:
The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all travel to Burundi and recommends that U.S. citizens currently in Burundi depart as soon as it is feasible to do so. As a result of the deteriorating security situation, the Department of State ordered the departure of dependents of U.S. government personnel and non-emergency U.S. government personnel from Burundi…
The embassy is evacuating their dependents because the situation has become so unstable they can no longer say where it is safe and where it is not. The embassy has a lot more information and resources than you do. If they’re not sure they can keep their people safe you should really start worrying about keeping yourself safe.
Important tip: If the embassy has ordered the departure of dependents, it is time to go.
On May 16th the US Embassy in Burundi issued an Emergency Message about planning for an evacuation saying:
U.S. citizens interested in departing Burundi are invited to contact us atBurundiEmergencyUSC@state.gov so we may assess potential options for assisting them. The means of departure, i.e., air or overland, have not yet been determined since airport and land borders are reportedly closed.
The embassy is offering to assist US citizens with leaving the country because: “Airport and land borders are reportedly closed.” If there was a way to get out unimpeded they would tell you to leave and not raise the option of assisting citizen’s departure.
This is not a free ride. You have to pay for the trip out.
U.S. law 22 U.S.C. 2671(b) (2) (A) requires that any assisted departure be provided “on a reimbursable basis to the maximum extent practicable. ”Please note that you will be asked to sign a form agreeing to reimburse the U.S. government for your evacuation costs. This is typically the equivalent of a full coach commercial fare. The government facilitated evacuation is open only to U.S. citizens and their immediate family members (no pets) with limited luggage (generally one piece per traveler).
The cost for a ticket is $620 per person.
And that the trip is not all the way back to the US. It is to the nearest safe nearby location. From there you have to make your own travel arrangements.
Shortly after that, the embassy issued second Emergency Message announcing evacuation flights the next day.
The U.S. Department of State wishes to inform U.S. citizens interested in departing Burundi that we are planning charter evacuation flights for Sunday, May 17, from Bujumbura, Burundi, to Kigali, Rwanda. Those wanting to travel should plan to arrive at Bujumbura International Airport no later than 10:00 a.m. Sunday morning. After that time we cannot guarantee you a flight.
Notice the part “After that time we cannot guarantee you a flight.” There is no guarantee the embassy can get another flight into the country.
If you are in Burundi it is time to go. Don’t worry about the money you will loose on your vacation or the academic credit you will not get from the study abroad program. GO TO THE AIRPORT. If you have a friend or family member there, tell them: GO TO THE AIRPORT.
The takeaway from all this:
- Situations can deteriorate very quickly. What was barely OK a few hours ago can suddenly turn into time to go to the airport NOW.
- You need to know what is going on. You need to know what the embassy is saying about the situation and what they are recommending.
- The best way to know what the embassy is saying is to have to stay in touch with them long before the emergency. The best way to do this is by enrolling in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)
An additional benefit of enrolling in the STEP program is that the embassy knows you are there in the country. This means they will do everything they can to contact you and make sure you know what is happening. If they don’t know you are there, they don’t know you want to leave.
Stay safe and travel far.
In this case, far from Burundi.