Registering with the US Embassy in a foreign country makes people feel safe when they travel. But is it a false sense of security? The US Embassies abroad maintain 24 hour emergency phone numbers that US citizens can call if they need to. The Embassy employees get hundreds of calls regarding everything from lost or missing luggage, lost plane tickets, pick-pockets, domestic disturbances - none of which they have the jurisdiction or capacity to deal with. I have always maintained that the Embassy will do little to help you in such mundane situations and it really needs to be a matter of life or death before they will become involved. (Read the fine print on their websites and you may get this feeling, too.) Even in dire situations, the most they will do is help a traveller make contact with a family member or friend back home and assist with having funds from the US wired over. If they provide any financial assistance at all they do so with the intention of being paid back in full. So if people seem to be confused about the Embassy's role is in minor situations, they are equally confused about the Embassy's role in major emergencies or crises.
I recently go into an argument with a former facebook friend shortly after the recent church bombings in Alexandria. This friend stated matter-of-factly that in the event of an emergency "the Embassy would get her out". I had to disagree. Let's consider for a minute the case of Mary Thornberry. Mary is a 76 year old US citizen and 15 year resident of Cairo, Egypt. Mary spent days trapped in her Tahrir Square apartment which was ground zero of last week's Cairo protests and the mele that ensued. She had journalists offering to go in and rescue her. Mary is described as being irked at the Embassy. She said during a phone interview with media that she was "not happy with the treatment she did not (sic) receive from the Embassy. Eventually the Embassy sent in employees to get her out, even personally escorting her to and into the airport - but this all came after her son in Washington State had begun contacting various media outlets. Mary's case is a special one indeed.
As several of my American friends (who have family and husband's in Egypt) and I sat glued to the TV and Internet watching events unfold, we could not help but notice that the Embassy and State Department were very silent. Although living in the US now, many of us have remained registered with the Embassy in Cairo for the simple fact that we travel frequently into the region. We received our first contact from the Consular Warden via email two days after the phone and Internet had been shut off in Egypt. It was a very basic email that told everyone just to stay indoors and do not attempt to come to the Embassy. For Americans living or travelling in Egypt it was too little, too late.
The last time there was a mass evacuation of Americans from a foreign country was Lebanon in 2006. To the casual observer watching that take place on CNN things appeared to be highly organized and take place very quickly. Americans were told to make sure they were registered online and stay in their homes and wait for an email or phone call. We saw boats and ships coming to ferry Americans to Cyprus. It was quite impressive. But there are two fundamental differences between the Lebanon evacuations and the events as they unfolded in Cairo. The fist being there was advance warning of the attacks by Israel. The second being that phone and Internet was still functioning in most of Lebanon. In the case of what began on January 25, 2011 in Egypt - everyone (except me) seems to be taken by surprise. This is repeated over and over again by citizens, journalists - just about anyone you talk to about it - they swear they did not see this coming. To the second point - the phone and Internet shutdown, it is not only evil dictators who can sever lines of communications within a country. Imagine for a minute that Cairo had been hit with an earthquake or other natural disaster. This could have just as easily wiped out all Internet, phone lines, as well as electricity and water. So one is left to wonder: did the US Embassy in Egypt have a contingency emergency plan in place to deal with a crisis in the event of a communications blackout? It appears they did not.
Once the Internet came back on Americans in Egypt were quick to announce their displeasure with the way the Embassy handled things. One American writes:
"The embassy is of complete uselessness. I went there yesterday to get info and they wouldn't even let Americans enter, didn't have any information to offer, and were only passing out visa applications for Greece and Turkey, but that was all they were doing, and they were doing that from OUTSIDE by ONE employee. What a way to show the American people that they can depend on their so-called embassy in cases of emergencies! They didn't even mention the flights leaving Egypt! I even called them myself and they didn't have anything to say other than "just stay inside" and they said they would call if something happened or things become available, but I have yet to have a phone call after a week! I also asked all the people that were outside the embassy the same thing if they got calls, etc.......and ALL SAID NO also."Another had this to say:
"yes they r completely useless!!! I called emergency twice and they hang up the phone on me cuz it seems they were getting too many calls n were sick of it so they just chose to hang up the phone on their citizens...."It was not just the Americans where were irritated with their Embassies. This Lebanese friend said of the Lebanese Embassy:
"my embassy were even more useless .. they only sent one airplane from Beirut to Cairo and when I called them and said I and a couple other Lebanese guys live in Alexandria they said only if you're more than 30 we can send you a bus .. what is it ? a field trip ???"The British even chimed in with this:
"Best laugh of the day: British Embassy / Foreign and Commonwealth Office Rapid Reaction Team telephone number: + 20 02 2791 6000 - it's the Rapid Reaction bit that make me crack! Someone I know spent 2 days trying to get through - got put through to London eventually to be told they were all at the airport"
"Embassy called me yesterday and I just ranted at the poor boy. If you want something doing properly do it yourself. Even in Bahrain when war broke out the FO were rubbish, we only register for statistics!"
"LOL - chocolate saucepans again - just found an email from British Embassy dated 30th Jan (2 days into internet blackout) about updated Embassy advice re Egypt - hahahahahaha - and I was registered with them and they know the situation and they have my phone number (landline) - ye Gods. Everyone move to Canada if you expect any help from Embassies!"
I had heard from a friend who did quite a bit of travelling around Egypt that if you venture off the beaten path into areas especially around the Sudan or Libya borders that you should tell everyone you are Canadian. Canada, it seems, has the best reputation for protecting it's citizens. I was following news on Al Jazeera English and the first country I heard make an official announcement about evacuations was, of all places - Iraq. Some 2,000 Iraq citizens, who had left Iraq for a better life in Egypt were headed back to Iraq.
But before we all run out and try to get Canadian citizenship, there are some important points to consider. Important lessons learned from this crisis in Egypt for those who live or are planning to live overseas.
- Do not put all your eggs into the Embassy basket. It is not the US Embassy's job to evacuate you to your home country. It is their job to inform you of potential dangers and to facilitate evacuation to a safe haven (the closest safe country to you current location). This is not free either. You have to pay for it out of your own pocket, pay for your travel expenses from the safe haven country, or sign a promissory note to repay the US government for evacuation costs.
- Make your own contingency and evacuation plan that you can put into action should the need arise.
- Keep enough cash on hand to evacuate yourself and all family members (including pets) on commercial flights. Flying direct to your home country on a commercial flight may be easier than getting dropped by the Embassy in yet another foreign country and having to find your way home from there. Remember, in the case of what happened in Egypt banks were closed, cash machines were out of money, and Western Union was not accepting transfers to Egypt. Trying to rely on family members to get money to you may not be practical in certain emergency situations.
- Do not expect the Embassy to come and get you from your home (unless you are Mary Thornberry). The subsequent emails from the State Department advised all citizens wishing to evacuate to make their way to the airport once the curfew was lifted. This means you are on your own to get to the airport which for many in the Egypt crisis proved to be quite difficult. Familiarize yourself well in advance with public transportation options and know more than one route to the airport from your home.
- Pets are traditionally not allowed on Embassy evacuation flights. Several animal advocacy groups emailed the State Department and Hilary Clinton urging them to allow pets to evacuate with citizens from Egypt (a hard lesson learned by many during Hurricane Katrina). Follow up emails from the State Department stated they would allow pets on the last evacuation flight provided they were small enough to fit in cabin. This means cats or very small dogs. If you have a larger dog, you are better off trying to leave on commercial flights as available provided the airport is not shut down as was the case in Lebanon in 2006. Familiarize yourself with your host country's export requirements for pets as soon as you arrive that way in the event of an emergency evacuation you are prepared. The good news is that bringing an animal into the United States from most foreign destinations does not involve quarantine, blood tests or micro chipping. If you do have to leave your pets behind try to find someone who can care for them for you. Animal shelters in Egypt are reporting finding many house pets on the streets following evacuations.