How do you repatriate 11,266 Belgian citizens?

Due to the coronavirus crisis, thousands of Belgians were all of a sudden stranded abroad. Three months later, the FPS Foreign Affairs can look back on the repatriations with satisfaction.

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Belgians repatriated from Morocco

Repatriation of Belgians from Morocco

Few had foreseen the coronavirus crisis, and certainly not its scope. But in March 2020, one country after another suddenly entered lockdown. Many countries also closed their airspace. Foreign tourists, among whom thousands of Belgians, could not return home. Our FPS Foreign Affairs - both the head office in Brussels and the various posts abroad (embassies and consulates) - had to swiftly step up a gear.

FPS employees manning the crisis centre

The call centre of the Foreign Affairs Crisis Centre has been continuously active since mid-March. © SPF AE/FOD BZ

Crisis centre and Facebook

At the head office, the crisis centre's call centre was set up. FPS volunteers were called upon to answer calls from Belgians abroad and their families. The FPS immediately started up several shifts and work continued at the weekend. For 9 days, the crisis centre was also accessible at night.

‘Because this crisis was clearly different from all the others so far,’ as explains Benedicte Versailles, director of the Crisis centre of Foreign Affairs. ‘A crisis normally occurs on a certain continent or in a given country, whereas now our global network was suddenly affected and we had to be in several places at once.’

On the Facebook page Diplomatie.Belgium the chat was reinforced with volunteers in Brussels and New York to answer questions from Belgians 24/7. A Facebook group was set up to give stranded Belgians the opportunity to exchange information.

Key figures (situation on 15 June 2020)

11,266 Belgians repatriated, including 2,724 Belgians via flights from other EU countries

1,828 non-Belgians repatriated

47 repatriation flights were organised by Belgium, 12 flights were facilitated by Belgium

263 volunteers of whom 159 volunteers for the crisis centre’s call centre and 104 volunteers to answer questions via Facebook

41,115 calls for the crisis centre

60,000 questions treated via Facebook

Overwhelmed with requests

Our diplomatic posts were facing an unprecedented situation. Thousands of Belgians had to return to Belgium while all commercial flights had been cancelled. In no time and in difficult circumstances, a post had to transform into a kind of travel agency. Many Belgians were located in the outer reaches of the post’s jurisdiction. For example, the embassy of Dakar was also responsible for people stuck on a Cape Verde island without an airport and the consulate general in Chennai covers an area half the surface of Europe.

The Belgian embassy in Rabat was inundated with requests by mail and by phone: In 5 days, it received 6,161 requests by mail. Additional staff was urgently recruited, as well as volunteers from the consular services at the head office. In total, a team of 30 people tried to handle the sudden inflow as efficiently as possible.

Minister Goffin in videoconference

Minister of Foreign Affairs Goffin closely followed the repatriations from Brussels, including via videoconferencing with the ambassadors. © SPF AE/FOD BZ

Travellers Online

The travellers database Travellers Online has already proved its worth. Since a few years, our compatriots have been able to register their trip abroad voluntarily. In this way, the embassy is informed of their presence and can reach them if necessary. During the coronavirus crisis, the missions used Travelers Online as a starting point. All travelling Belgians registered in the database received an e-mail. ‘Based on reactions such as – “I am still here and wish to be repatriated” - we drew up a list of Belgians who wished to return home,’ says Thomas Hiergens of the embassy in Dakar.

Of course, reality is always a little more complex. Hiergens: ‘Not all travellers register, others do not check their e-mail, still others do not inform us when they leave the country.  So the list of “travelling Belgians who wish to return” is never conclusive.’ It is important to make Travellers Online even better known and to convince people of its usefulness.

Operating flights

Only if there were enough Belgians in a certain jurisdiction who wanted to return, if there were no more commercial flights and if the health situation deteriorated, it made sense to operate a flight of one's own. This was done, for example, via airlines such as Brussels Airlines and Air Belgium. Not always as simple as it appears. For example, the medical emergency in Morocco was applied very strictly and it was also Ramadan, which complicated the organisation of return flights.

For smaller groups of Belgians, the missions looked for seats on flights from other EU countries. ‘That requires intensive consultation,’ says Hiergens. ‘A complex job, which requires clear and effective communication, both with the embassies and the potential travellers.’

Maryline, Vigjilent and a taxi driver

The stranded Belgians received the necessary documents from our missions to be able to travel to the airport. © Maryline Delvallée


And how do you evacuate Belgians from remote areas? The embassy in Rabat provided coaches. ‘We even set up a special call centre to contact all passengers booked in the day before departure and to confirm the logistical instructions given by e-mail: time and place of departure, travel authorisation, etc.,’ says Ambassador Trenteseau (Rabat). ‘This way, we could avoid that people would miss their coach which often left very early in the morning from different cities.’

In many other cases, Belgians had to make sure that they got to the airport by their own means, for example by taxi or boat. They did receive guidance from the post, which also provided the necessary authorisations. Toon Nicolai was stuck on a Cape Verde island without an airport. ‘To get off the island we needed a “laissez-passer”,’ he says. ‘We had to obtain these ourselves from the local authorities, however, we did receive a letter of recommendation by e-mail from the Belgian ambassador in Dakar.’

The consulate general in Chennai also provided the necessary documents. An additional difficulty in India is that you cannot just travel from one state to another, and certainly not in a country in lockdown. ‘In order to allow the Belgians to get to the airport via several states, we issued a "laissez-passer" ourselves,’ says locally engaged employee Dhivviaa Ramakrishnan. ‘We also provided a transit pass via the local authorities, as well as the necessary permit from the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.’

Essential local authorities

Good contacts with these local authorities proved to be essential in many cases. ‘They were available at all times and often called or e-mailed us until late in the evening to report that they had found a solution,’ Ramakrishnan says. ‘We felt that the Belgians were in capable hands with them.’

This is also confirmed by ambassador Trenteseau: ‘Strong bonds of trust with the local authorities were a key to the success of our operation. Precisely these bonds of trust with our direct opponents allowed us to solve numerous problematic situations.’

Hard work and great satisfaction

All in all, our posts look back on the experience with satisfaction. However, it was hard work and especially during the first weeks, working evenings and weekends was inevitable. The human aspect, however, was really satisfactory and kept the teams going. ‘Especially for our own repatriation flights,’ says Hiergens, ‘for which we personally escorted the Belgians to the airport.’

Indeed, in many cases diplomatic staff did not have the opportunity to be ‘on the spot’ personally and the contact with the Belgians only took place by mail, phone or WhatsApp. But even that gave great satisfaction, especially when receiving words of gratitude once the Belgians were back home.

Dhivviaa Ramakrishnan

Most of the assistance was provided virtually or by phone. © Consulate General in Chennai

Mostly satisfied Belgians

‘Interaction with the embassy was fairly easy,’ says Nicolai. ‘We knew when a plane would be arriving and what we had to do to get it. The info was to the point.’ Maryline Delvallée, travelling in Kerala, also looks back gratefully: ‘I was really excited to be able to work with the consul general. He followed our case very closely. We can only congratulate the consulate general!!’

Of course there were other reactions too. This was especially the case at the embassy in Rabat. Due to the enormous influx, applicants did not always get immediate answers to their questions. By involving extra people and organising WhatsApp groups to centralise the information, this shortcoming could be overcome.

But in the meantime, the damage had been done. Ambassador Trenteseau: ’At the beginning of the crisis, Facebook groups were set up to exchange experiences between stranded travellers. However, some of these groups were soon used by their administrators or by ill-intentioned influencers to put pressure on our FPS. For example, by blaming Belgium for closing the Moroccan borders and for the repatriation problems, by creating dissatisfaction, etc. This disinformation campaign was very harmful, not only because it made discussions with the Moroccan authorities more difficult, but also because false information was spread.’

Nevertheless, we can say that the FPS Foreign Affairs can look back with satisfaction on this mother of all crises. Thousands of Belgians returned home safely and were very satisfied with the service provided by our missions. Moreover, our FPS has learnt many lessons that will be included into a roadmap of good practices.