To what extent can you depend on your embassy or consulate for assistance in the event of an emergency situation? The Corona-Virus situation in Wuhan, China brings the question to light.
Knowing what you can expect from your government in a time of need could ultimately save your life and the lives of loved ones. Americans living in Wuhan report they were disappointed with the U.S. government’s response to the situation. Many say they wasted precious time assuming help was on the way:
• “Information about the evacuation flight was difficult to obtain. They [the consulate] never answered the phone. An outgoing message on an answering machine told me to go to the Consulate website for information. It was dated.”
• “Consulate employees and their families got priority seating on the evacuation flight. Charging non-government employees $1000 per ‘leftover’ seat was without conscience.”
• “I could board the evacuation flight but was told to leave my Chinese wife and child behind. I stayed in China.”
Becoming familiar with your government’s policies and its past history of intervention in times of crisis is a must for expats. As witnessed in China, assuming your government will come to your rescue could produce a false sense of security with dire consequences. Following 9/11, International Educators living in Pakistan reported that the U.S. Consulate evacuated ASAP, leaving them to fend for themselves.
Have you had the occasion to rely on your embassy in a crisis situation? How did that experience play out? Did it elevate your perception of your embassy or consulate and give you a feeling of security and confidence? Or? What advice do you have for fellow expatriates?
Sharing experiences will help colleagues make informed decisions in the future.
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16 thoughts on “Your Embassy in Times of Crisis”
My two experiences with the US Embassy were positive. When my husband died suddenly while we were traveling in Spain they helped figure out what my options were (I had no idea) and repatriated his remains. My second experience was dealing with an extortion threat in Guatemala at a music camp. We called both the US and Canadian embassies. The US embassy gave us the contact information we needed to report the incident as well as explicit instructions what to do and what not to do. The embassies also helped contacting families at home. They were a source of information in dealing with both countries.
Our first overseas experience was in Egypt during the revolution. Other countries sent planes in for their citizens. Not the US!! They sent in a commercial airline which was first come first served and before they would let anyone board they had to sign a promissory notes to pay for the flight which would show up on taxes. What a joke! We rode out the revolution in the country and fortunately worked for a reputable school that took care of us. Most expats evacuated Cairo.
SO, EXPERIENCE TAUGHT ME DON’T EXPECT ANYTHING FROM YOUR EMBASSY!!! They bailed first and yes, our tax dollars pay their salaries!
While I have never been through a situation where I felt I needed embassy help, I’ve had very positive interactions with my U.S. Embassies in Barcelona and Beijing. I signed up for alerts while living in China and was always informed via email or text if something was happening. When the Chinese government suddenly changed the rules (again) regarding my spouse’s ability to stay in the country, the embassy in Beijing very quickly and easily helped us with the paperwork. In Barcelona I was able to change my name to my married name easily (We got married right before we moved to China and I didn’t have time to change before we left.). All in all, I have nothing but good things to say about the U.S. Embassies I’ve dealt with.
While I agree with the posters that say it is not the embassy’s job to protect and save its citizens living in foreign countries, there are some embassies that do a spectacular job. The Colombian Embassy in Bogota is a good example. They have a Warden program (now called “Citizen Liaisons” which is comprised of volunteers throughout the country that are available to help citizens in a crisis. In the cases I have seen, the embassy has responded to delicate situations, including flying a citizen back home. I would imagine this program is in other embassies as well.
I’ve always gotten from the US Embassy or Consulate exactly what I expected of them. I wouldn’t expect them to rescue me in a time of crisis. Who knows how many Americans there might be in any particular country? In Beijing? Who knows? Possibly upwards of 100,000, and if you include children holding US passports who haven’t lived in the US since infancy, possibly double that. Or maybe only half that. The point is, expecting any embassy to be responsible for people who have voluntarily chosen to live in a foreign country for their own benefit is naive and unfair. Of course the government has to look out for their employees. But you can’t expect them to look out for the employees of others.
If you register with the embassy or consulate, they will keep you informed, and if possible, help you in times of crisis, as they did in Wuhan. They will replace your passport abroad, help you get the necessary paperwork to bring home your adopted child, and in some cases, hold educational or social events. They will give you a list of lawyers if you need legal help and possibly even advocate for you if you have someone to badger them and your case is particularly dubious. But their job is to look out for US interests, not US individuals.
The real question is can you count on your employer to look after your interests in times of crisis like your home country’s government looks after theirs?
I was in Beijing when the outbreak started. We did not leave straight away since we did not perceive it as a dangerous situation at first. We spent 10 days locked in our apartment, with my husband going out to get food and quickly coming back. When our 10 months old daughter got sick and the international hospital there said they would not receive her had she had fever and that she had to go to one of the designated fever clinics (where Covid-19 patients were being treated) we understood it was time to leave. She did not have fever, but what if one day she would wake up with 37.5 degrees temperature? We tried to call the Italian embassy, but no one ever answered. We just booked a flight to Italy and left the day after. I was not expecting much, I called them because I felt I should have at least asked them something, but the automatic message quickly reminded me that we were on our own in Beijing, and that the life of our daughter was our top priority. So, no I am not expecting my embassy to be of any help in a crisis situation, wherever I might be.
Waiting for or thinking that the United States embassy is going to help you in a crisis situation is a foolish position. In two countries where was teaching, the Consulate left before any of us knew it.
Have your own plan in place. Keep cash on hand for emergencies such as an evacuation. The consulate employees are tethered to the US government and pulled out quickly, we as international educators are literally on our own. You may be able to depend on your school for help. I’d check it out carefully before you assume any false conclusion. It’s sad when I learned that our director had left during a situation in South America, leaving the teachers and school on their own. Think: Take care of number one and your family.
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Totally spot on. I too have been through a revolution, Flu and cholera outbreaks, embargoes, etc. The only thing you get is an email from the US govt…..if you are signed up for the service.
I keep “Go Money” at all times. When the revolution occurred in Egypt, the ATMs/internet went down and cash was king. Luckily, our school had a bank on site and was able to get money to employees (both foreign and domestic) in the first few weeks. But I was better off than most as I had kept “go money” in my safe for just that type of thing.
In the end, your life is your responsibility and thinking that the government will help you is naive at best.
The British Embassy. Less than useless and rather have a chocolate teapot supporting me.
The Embassy and Consulate are a total waste of taxpayers money. They only care about themselves, act as though they are so much better than the underlings working elsewhere, and do not care what happens to their fellow Americans. They are the American government so what else could you expect.
Years ago when all went downhill in Libya, the US government employees were gone before anyone knew what was actually happening. The same has been for other countries. Oh, and do not hope to bring your beloved pet with you if you are allowed on one of their evacuation planes, even if it is your only carry-on.
Rely on your own instincts when things start going wrong in a country. Have your own evacuation planes in place for you, your family, and your pets.
Perhaps you should look into what exactly embassies and consulates are set up to do. They are not set up to babysit citizens who are traveling/working abroad, they are there for diplomatic affairs. I’ve gotten to know people at a few embassies from places I’ve lived or traveled and I’ll admit, at first I thought their mission was to their citizens there. Knowing what their actual job is gave me a better perspective. They aren’t there to get every soldier off the battlefield.
Genuinely sorry other posters had such sour experiences. My interactions with State have been mostly positive. In volatile countries or other hardship posts, I was connected to a warden who kept tabs on the well-being of their ward, proactively emailed us about goings-on like strikes and protests, and organized Q&A sessions in uncertain times. My warden and other DoS staff were always responsive to my questions, and solutions-forward when I had problems. I am reminded specifically of the time I had to get a passport within 10 days because my original had been destroyed in the washing machine — they got it to me in eight. Or the assistance with getting my not-yet-a-citizen wife out of an emirate that the employer wouldn’t let her leave. Or the time all the Americans were evacuated and they made sure the last of us got on the last plane to safely leave the country.
I sympathize with anybody who has suffered frustrations dealing with their embassy (no one likes the state.gov website). At the risk of getting political, I’m sure the scope of their services had diminished with the current administration’s cuts to overseas operations. Yet I would hesitate to consider them any kind of “elite club.” Have you ever tried to take the foreign service officers test? Are you aware that the US interests they try to advance in foreign countries is precisely the reason you are allowed to work there as a teacher, relatively worry free? The people who work for our embassy are no dummies and any privileges they enjoy, I assure you they have earned.
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Times of international crisis are when the “Hollywood” Embassy and the “In Real Life” Embassy roles finally reveal themselves. In movies (which is what ALL rookie expats believe their Embassy’s to be like) the facility will take you in and protect you from the aggressive regime or deadly virus and will put you on a black ops flight with security of the likes of Jack Bauer making sure you get back to US soil and in the welcoming arms of your elected officials! Mission Accomplished!
In reality, the US Embassy is a diplomatic contact abroad and provides no security for nationals that are not federal employees or US contractors. They evacuated their staff because they are responsible for their staff. The State Department stationed those individuals abroad and is their caretaker. For international teachers, we chose to fly to a foreign country and put our safety in the hands of a foreign company or organization and when the cards are down, we are left to our own devices.
“I could board the evacuation flight but was told to leave my Chinese wife and child behind. I stayed in China.” – This is a bad deal for this person and it is a choice that NO husband or father should have to make. But to expect that the U.S. would offer evacuation, albeit paid, to a foreign national is just not logical.
My wife is Canadian and I recall speaking with the U.S. Embassy in Burma years ago and the ambassador told us that is there is ever a crisis in Burma to buy the first flight to Singapore or Malaysia and from there to go to either London, Vancouver, or the States. He was honest and forthcoming. He told us the the Embassy would not prioritize non-government staff and we were accountable for our own security.
This is the risk we take as educators abroad, accept it or stay home.
I truly hope that everyone teaching in China is safe and healthy! This too shall pass.
A version of this has also been my experience. Their priorities are to represent US diplomatic and economic interests, not citizens who happen to be working there independently. I understand this but it sure was a wake up call for me!
The American embassy and consulate, in my experience, is a private club for entitled and pampered government employees. They are overseas to advance America’s interests and not to help its citizens. The three times I had occasion to believe my embassy would assist me turned out to be a complete disappointment. And to think.. it’s my tax money that supports their great lifestyle overseas.
I would not depend upon the US Consulate for any help or assistance. I have found through experience they support defense contractors and other high-priority groups, but not teachers.