How our post in Rabat faced a crisis of unprecedented proportions

At the end of March, the world froze. States decided, among other measures, to close their borders to prevent the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus. Many Belgians were caught off guard all over the world. Our diplomatic posts were suddenly beset by repatriation requests, especially those in Morocco, where a lot of people were located when the lockdown happened. Marc Trenteseau, Belgian ambassador in Rabat, discusses the management of this unprecedented crisis.

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People queue up to check in at the airport

In April, a first wave of repatriation organised by the embassy repatriated 1,139 people back to Belgium on 7 flights from Marrakesh and Agadir. At the beginning of the crisis, the vast majority of those requesting a return were in these two tourist regions. In the North, with the support of our Honorary Consul in Tangier, we systematically informed our fellow citizens about the commercial flights that returned more than 1,000 people to Belgium.

The second wave of repatriation, which was for humanitarian reasons, ended on 15 May and enabled 1,912 people to be repatriated to Belgium on 7 new flights. In addition to these 14 aircrafts, there were 7 emergency medical flights for passengers in critical condition. A third wave of repatriation is currently (29 May) on the horizon for the beginning of June and the entire embassy team remains available to work on it.

Employees manning the call centre in Rabat

A small part of our call center

Lists of applicants

All the Belgian nationals registered on the TravellersOnline platform were contacted by email starting on 12 April to announce the opening of applications for humanitarian repatriation. We received an influx of requests following this appeal: 6,161 emails in five days, to be processed and encoded.

We therefore set up a team, around a core of six people in Rabat and Casablanca, and were able to mobilise the help of volunteers from the Wallonia Brussels International Delegation and new recruits. This led to 15 encoders processing the applications day and night until April 17. In view of the urgency, the post also requested the help of the department in Brussels and was thus able to rely on a dozen additional people.

In total, nearly 30 people took part in this encoding exercise. This tireless work meant that the information could be consolidated by April 19 and a list of 4,500 names could be finalised, a challenge given the timeframe. Of course, this effort led to a few inevitable errors, due to the number of requests and the need to record the reasons given (medical, professional or family). But the overall result largely met our expectations.

The freedom of action with which the headquarter in Brussels has honoured us during these operations has proved very useful in supplementing the lists with priority cases, often already known to our posts, or in responding to a constantly changing situation (renouncement by candidates, priority alerts after the registration date, medical situation that became urgent, etc.). Sometimes we only had one day between flights. Flexibility allowed us to react quickly, both in Brussels and on the spot.

Passengers are registered at the airport

Passengers are registered at the airport

Organising flights: complex logistics

This was certainly one of the most difficult points to deal with, on the one hand because of the enormous number of requests, and on the other hand, because of sporadic publications on social networks and in the media. These publications could have created a negative atmosphere, even though we had no problems with those passengers who were selected and flown home.

The massive influx of emails and phone calls quickly filled all the phone lines and inundated mailboxes. This was inevitable because the two posts (Rabat and Casablanca) did not have the technical or human capacity to cope with such an influx. This created a sense of frustration among applicants who did not always receive answers to their questions.

In keeping with past lessons learned about managing communication in times of crisis, the post created WhatsApp groups to centralise information and disseminate messages between the various managers in real time. This decision enabled rapid, harmonised communication in a constantly changing situation.

Het belang van communicatie

Dat is zeer zeker een van de moeilijkst beheersbare punten. Enerzijds vanwege de enorme toevloed van aanvragen; en anderzijds, door de vele foutieve berichten op de sociale netwerken en in de media. Die publicaties hadden een zeer giftig klimaat kunnen creëren, terwijl we geen enkel probleem hebben ondervonden met de passagiers die werden geselecteerd en die aan boord zijn gestapt.

De zeer grote stroom aan mails en telefonische oproepen zorgde ervoor dat alle telefoonlijnen en mailboxen al snel overbelast raakten. Dat was onvermijdelijk omdat de twee posten (Rabat en Casablanca) noch de technische noch de menselijke capaciteit hebben om een dergelijke golf het hoofd te bieden. Dat zorgde voor heel wat frustratie bij aanvragers, die niet altijd antwoorden kregen op hun vragen.

Door de lessen die we hebben getrokken uit het verleden met betrekking tot het beheer van de communicatie in crisistijd, richtte de post WhatsApp-groepen op om de informatie te centraliseren en in realtime berichten te verspreiden onder de verschillende beheerders. Door deze beslissing konden we op een snelle en geharmoniseerde manier communiceren in een voortdurend evoluerende toestand.

Disinformation campaign

As soon as the crisis began, Facebook groups were created for blocked people to share experiences. While they started with good intentions, some groups were soon used by their managers or ill-intentioned influencers as a tool for exerting pressure on our FPS. For example: making Belgium bear responsibility for the closure of the Moroccan borders and the repatriation problems; stirring up discontent; spreading the idea of different treatment of repatriation files depending on the origin of the applicants, etc.

This disinformation campaign was harmful, and risked complicating negotiations with the Moroccan authorities, partly by disseminating false information. This created a great deal of confusion among our vulnerable citizens, who made more and more distress calls at a time when our networks were already saturated.

Family with meal package

Because of Ramadan, each passenger received a meal package for the plane

The importance of the human dimension

Faced with a crisis of this magnitude, ad hoc procedures had to be put in place quickly, taking into account the reality on the ground and the forces available. While compliance with consular instructions was crucial, the human dimension was just as vital and had to guide our actions. A database protected mainly those people who were in difficult situations and had to be given as much assistance as possible. Despite the urgency and the limited resources, we had to take the time to listen to and support them.

Paradoxically, it was this human dimension that kept the local employees and teams motivated; some of them gave far more than could be expected. This was also the reason why we took into consideration the importance of Ramadan for the vast majority of passengers, who arrived at the airport exhausted after a long drive. We therefore provided a meal package for each passenger so they could break their fast once they were on the plane. This attention was much appreciated by everyone.

Lastly, maintaining the bonds of trust with the local authorities was a key element in the success of this operation. It was these relationships of trust with our direct counterparts that enabled us to resolve many problematic situations.

Staff behind Belgian flag

A team that is satisfied with the result