“Guiding Belgians personally at the airport, that's satisfying”

Because of the corona crisis, our embassies suddenly had all hands on deck: many national airspaces were closed, while thousands of Belgians abroad still needed to return home. How did our embassies get them home? Thomas Hiergens, political and economic advisor at the embassy in Dakar, tells his story.

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Staff at Dakar airport after repatriation flight

Dakar airport: satisfied after a successful repatriation flight

Dakar, the capital of Senegal, lies on the Atlantic Ocean, at the westernmost tip of continental Africa. The Belgian Embassy is also located near the sea, in the fairly quiet but centrally located district of "Plateau". From there, we do our work to guide the stranded Belgians in Senegal, but also in Cape Verde, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, back to Belgium.

Dakar by the Atlantic

View of Dakar on the Atlantic Ocean. © iStock

Travellers Online

The first tool for tracking down Belgians is Travellers Online: a database in which compatriots can register their trip abroad. That way, the embassy is aware of your presence and can reach you. Travellers Online has proved its worth in this crisis, by all accounts: thanks to the e-mail addresses, we were able to send messages to all the travelling Belgians registered in the database. Based on the responses – "I am still here and wish to be repatriated" – we made a list of Belgians who wished to return.

Of course, it's not that simple. Many travellers have not registered on Travellers Online, others don't look at their e-mail, still others don't inform us if they have already left. So the lists of “travelling Belgians who wish to return” are never conclusive. A lot of travellers are not on our radar because they don't register or make themselves known, while some are on the list but are long gone. There are also some who don't want to leave, or can't. Of course, there are also people who spontaneously e-mail or call us – they too will end up on the return lists.

An embassy is not a travel agency

Once we had a better view of the Belgians travelling in our area of jurisdiction, Belgium decided to organise repatriation flights itself: two at Dakar and one at Banjul. This allowed the most urgent cases – tourists without a local network – to go home. A total of more than 450 Belgians, along with some 250 other Europeans.

If the number of Belgians is too low, it is not useful to organise repatriation flights ourselves. In that case, we try to get Belgians to travel with flights from other European countries, usually thanks to intensive consultations with our neighbouring countries the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and Luxembourg.

We even had two Belgians from Gambia travel via Spain: departure from Banjul, with a stopover in Cape Verde, and so on to Madrid. Then to Barcelona, and finally to Amsterdam. A complex job in which you have to communicate quickly and clearly, both with embassies and with potential travellers. In the end, we managed to get a few dozen Belgians on those “foreign” flights each time.

The example of Cape Verde is telling: from this archipelago of 10 islands, 76 Belgian tourists have already left via 6 different flights from European countries. Not all islands have airports, so people had to make a domestic boat trip first. Other islands were in strict quarantine and in a “state of emergency”, making it very difficult to get away from them. Each flight also has its own criteria and prices: some are free, others are very expensive. Try explaining that to tourists whose already paid return flight has been cancelled indefinitely. An embassy is not a travel agency.

Calm Belgians

The vast majority of Belgians who want to return are tourists. They planned a short stay anyway and have no family or network locally. Some of them panicked, but in general it wasn't that bad. Particularly the Belgians who stay here for half the year have remained calm. After all, they have a house here, family or friends where they can stay for a longer period of time.

Not everyone wants to go back to Belgium, and they have the right not to do so. Some have no money for the repatriation flights, others just feel safer here. The level of healthcare may not be as high here, but the dramatic figures for the number of Covid-19 infections and deaths in Europe seem quite frightening. But in the end, everyone will want to go home.

No quarantine like in Europe

For the time being, Senegal, and by extension Africa, have relatively low figures. Nonetheless, we are now (20 May 2020) clearly observing an acceleration of between 50 and 100 new infections per day. These low figures are an underestimate, if only because of the lower testing capacity and the limited hospital infrastructure.

There are also said to be a number of "inhibiting factors". The African population is a lot younger than the European one, and is therefore less at risk of loss of life. Then there are the “less scientific arguments”: many people take medication that can have an inhibiting effect (such as antimalarial drugs). The virus is also said to survive less long in warm climates, which would make it less likely to spread.

Despite these inhibiting factors, the virus is definitely spreading in Africa too. A recent WHO report even talks about a potential for a quarter of a billion infections over a period of more than one year to several years. Pretty hallucinatory figures, to which we will eventually have to adapt our reality and lifestyle.

Strict quarantine at home is impossible here anyway. Street vendors, market vendors, shoe polishers, farmers etc. all have to take to the streets, or they simply have no income. This is the case throughout Africa: strict quarantine like in Europe is not feasible here. Worse still, it can even be downright “murderous”. Global lockdown measures are already sending out alarming signals, such as rising food insecurity (a doubling in West Africa) and a lack of vaccination campaigns.

Even as embassy employees, we cannot work from home. But our post has definitely taken some measures: limited working hours, no meetings, no external contacts within the embassy, social distancing, washing hands regularly and wearing a face mask in the event of an unavoidable encounter with externals.

Satisfied Belgians

It's been pretty hard. At the beginning of the repatriation wave, we worked 21 days on the trot, sometimes for up to 15 hours a day. That was unsustainable. Some colleagues got headaches and sore throats from fatigue, which was the ultimate signal to take it easy. Now we are working again at a more liveable pace.

And, of course, it has calmed down: more than 85% of the travelling Belgians have left. Those who are still in Senegal are not in that much of a hurry to return. Some do not have the financial means to pay for a repatriation flight. Others would prefer to wait until the airspace reopens and they can take a commercial flight with Brussels Airlines.

All in all, this work gives a lot of satisfaction. Especially with our own repatriation flights: we personally accompanied all the Belgians at the airport. But we also get thank-you e-mails once they're back home. Naturally there are some people who complain – you get those everywhere. But in general, I have the impression that Belgium is doing quite well and that the citizens are satisfied with our service.