By Ancile Technologies
The crisis caused by the COVID-19 virus pandemic left thousands of citizens stranded overseas. To limit the spread of the virus, countries all over the world closed their borders and imposed travel restrictions. As a result, airlines reduced or canceled their flights, universities, hotels, and businesses shut down. This situation left citizens – tourists, employees and students – trapped in foreign countries unable to return to their homes.
This calamity forced Crisis Management Centers around the world to launch emergency repatriation operations aiming to protect their Citizens and to fulfill their Duty of Care. In this context, an unprecedented collaboration effort among governments, airline companies, and travel agencies initiated to conduct the most massive repatriation of all times. Their challenge? To bring their citizens safely back to their home countries fighting against time, as the pandemic spread and stricter measures imposed around the world.
Governments all across the globe surely are doing their best to fly out citizens stranded at a foreign location amid the coronavirus pandemic. But how efficiently are they managing to collaborate while bringing their citizens home? How promptly did they identify a citizen’s location and how they communicate with those at risk? Did they coordinate their efforts and respond timely to assist all the affected people? The repatriation operations started in March, and citizens “trapped” in third countries or EU countries are still in distress, having financial difficulties and facing health risks.
REPATRIATION IN NUMBERS and EMERGING CHALLENGES
While some countries managed to repatriate most of their nationals, some others are merely starting their efforts due to the large number and dispersal of their citizens. The USA, UK, and Australia, for example, have more than ten thousand travelers abroad. Since the end of March, Switzerland using their national air carrier “Edelweiss” repatriated about 3.500 Swiss travelers and about 2.420 citizens. Netherlands helped over 3000 Dutch citizens and over 1.000 European citizens to return from abroad with KLM airlines. Belgium assisted 5.133 nationals to return thanks to the mobilization of the “Air Belgium” carrier. The cooperation among EU member states played an important role, as countries were able to repatriate more of their citizens by coordinating their efforts with the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC). A total number of 14.398 people repatriated through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM), of which 12.208 were EU citizens. On the other hand, during this period Cyprus was able to repatriate around 700 citizens, while more than 4.000 requested repatriation. The reason was the restrictions imposed by the government limiting the number of citizens allowed to enter the country.
Planning is not enough.
Repatriation, as the numbers indicate, is a difficult and sensitive operation. As the criteria for success are difficult to determine, we could define success “as a safe return” of civilians, if not all of them, at least the highest percentage of those eligible to return. In this particular situation, success or failure can have an impact on human health and even loss of life. Therefore, emergency planning is essential. The responsible authorities must be prepared and have made plans for each possible scenario. A well-documented plan could mitigate the risks, but it must also be practiced in advance and updated as needed. The way to achieve this is by combining training and practice, as well as incorporating best practices gained from previous lessons learned.
Centralized Shared Management System
A fast-changing environment like the one during the pandemic requires to obtain updated information and to share them with all actors involved. Governments have to mobilize and cooperate with local actors (ministries, airports, hotels travel agencies, the civil defense, police, etc.) and international authorities (European Union, other governments, airline or shipping companies, etc.) that might be involved at the repatriation efforts. But based on experience, like the pandemic, evacuation and repatriation are most effective when governments are coordinating together their plans. These operations usually take place a long way from the countries territory and by mobilizing different assets to rescue a multi-national number of people and transport them to a safe place. Therefore, a mechanism for centralized management of assets and the sharing of transportation plans would be beneficial. This need was documented after evacuations from Lebanon in 2006, Libya in 2011 and as well the repatriation due to the closure of Thomas Cook airline in 2019.
Lessons from history
These cases have led states to seek opportunities for joint training and cooperation. An example is the exercise taking place annually in Cyprus, called “ARGONAUT”, which is focusing on evacuation scenarios and involve staff from all responsible authorities from many counties. That is an excellent opportunity to incorporate previous lessons learned and best practices to improve readiness and response. It is necessary to take into consideration the proven need for a common shared situational awareness platform, which will facilitate the cooperation in large evacuations similar to what we are witnessing now. Most importantly, it stressed the importance of such an on-line platform to coordinate routes and allocate the capacity of the means used for repatriation. Nowadays, this need became more urgent and imperative.
Historically speaking, given the volatile environment in the wider region, chances of the evacuation of third-country nationals from areas of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East are always high. In such a case and as happened in 2006 at Lebanon evacuation, Cyprus will be the temporary transfer hub of thousands of citizens until their repatriation. The existence of such a collaborative platform would be a powerful tool for managing and coordinating the efforts of more than 20 countries in our region!
The Cyprus case
Smaller countries will benefit much more by participating in a common framework of cooperation. Most of the Cypriot nationals trapped in the UK, Greece, Germany, Netherlands, and other European countries are students. Still, there are more in different countries around the world. Arranging for a 300-seat plane to pick up one or two citizens from the Africa region would not work out that easily. Yet cooperating with one or two more countries’ to arrange their transfer with a flight that is already scheduled from another country would be a wiser solution. But timing and coordination are crucial, as delays may result in loose opportunities, subsequently leading to chartering more flights. The inability to react quickly would also lead not only to increased costs, but leaving the citizens exposed longer to the pandemic.
Reaching out to citizens
The ease of communication with citizens may also impact the effectiveness of the repatriation. The existence of an on-line registration platform for citizens abroad is crucial to help governments identify, quantify, and contact them. Although in Cyprus, such a service pre-existed, it had to be upgraded amid the crisis to meet the emerging needs. A lot of countries are using social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, or have a dedicated website to communicate directly and notify their citizens regarding the flight arrangements. Communication methods like telephone, email, spreadsheets, and sticky notes are adding to the workload of consular officials and make the procedure even more complicated. Traditional methods proved inefficient as citizens reported having a hard time to receive updated information and organize their departure.
As the pandemic crisis unfolds, it gives important lessons to all relevant authorities regarding the tools they need to manage the repatriation. Citizens may encounter a similar emergency in the future. An armed conflict, political unrest, a natural disaster, or a terrorist attack, might pose an imminent threat to their lives. Those emergencies oblige governments to be ready to conduct an evacuation and repatriation on a short notice. They have to make correct decisions and respond quickly to provide immediate assistance and ensure the lives of not only their citizens but also any other affected civilians. Therefore, a post-crisis assessment should take place to register gaps and shortcomings. The experience gained combined with the results of the assessment should be the basis for future planning, improvement, and upgrading of plans and procedures.
Based on those examples mentioned above, we can come to the conclusion that there is a lot of room for improvement. The main challenges that emerged can be summarized as follows:
- Localization and grouping of citizens at each country and location
- Dissemination of travel options and notification of citizens
- Increase transportation capabilities and sharing of chartered flight capacity
- Real-time communication and information exchange
- Practical training, implementing past experiences and lessons learned
One way to deal with the above challenges is by using an on-line software solution. For example, a central coordination system would enable better planning and organization of such evacuation and repatriation operations. By using the system, cooperation among governments, private entities, and international bodies will be optimized, leading to a collaborative and timely response. It will facilitate as well the proper use and sharing of all available means of transport, especially those chartered by governments. At the same time are saving resources and reducing administrative burden. Citizens would receive live notifications on their smartphones and save valuable time avoiding stress and delays. This technology will also serve training of personnel and conducting exercises as it can be used to practice procedures and evaluate their effectiveness before the crisis. In result, more citizens could be evacuated or repatriated in less time, minimizing their exposure to danger.
The above indicates that crisis management centers should give priority to the integration of modern technology and innovative tools that will enhance their evacuation and repatriation operations. Governments should inspire public confidence by increasing their capacity to bring their citizens home when a crisis occurs and to ensure their safety and security anywhere in the world.
Ancile Technologies is an information technology startup under establishment in Cyprus, focusing on crisis management solutions. Currently, we are developing the EMP HERACLIS, a brand new Evacuation Management Platform.
The “Evacuation Management Platform – HERACLIS” provides the missing link to enable users to address a majority of the issues outlined above. This secure, multi-user, web-based solution will ensure the efficient and effective management of evacuations or repatriations. Our solution provides a real-time overview of the operation by representing the evacuee’s location in conjunction with the transportation assets utilized for their safe relocation. Overall, we offer the essential features to plan and perform an evacuation and repatriation of civilians overseas either independently or in collaboration with other Countries. The driving force behind the innovation is the safety and security of nationals abroad, an obligation of the highest priority, and national interest for any government or international organization.
Currently, a prototype is under evaluation by our team of experts. We are looking forward to cooperate with any governmental authority or private entity to form a group of end-users and undergo trials. Already three foreign governments have shown interest in testing the platform and well before the pandemic crisis. Of course, our early adopters will benefit by using the prototype, as they will have the chance to request features and functionalities suitable for their needs. Furthermore, their feedback will be paramount to validate further and refine our platform and to release a minimum viable product (MVP).
As a first step, we envisage offering the MVP for training and simulation purposes, on a freemium model, increasing user engagement and disseminating its value. The solution will be provided as “Software as a Service” (SaaS) on a subscription basis, making it easily accessible and cost-effective to use it. An internet connection it’s all that it takes to use the platform without any need for installation or service. It is as well an excellent tool for training and crisis exercises, contributing to preparedness.
Our vision is EMP HERACLIS to become the best solution for cross-border evacuation and repatriation management. Our goal is to create a central coordination hub for governments, transportation providers, medical extraction services, insurance companies, international corporations, and humanitarian agencies and change the way we train, prepare and collaborate to evacuate civilians from crisis areas worldwide.
For more info, trial or demo, please contact us.
 A moral or legal obligation to ensure the safety or well-being of others
 To bring or send back a person to his or her country of origin
 In situations of urgency where risk is imminent, the rapid physical movement of people away from the immediate threat or impact of hazard to a safer place
 ARGONAUT: Civilian-military cooperation (CIMIC) tabletop exercise simulating a mass scale evacuation of civilians from a third country in the region and their repatriation through Cyprus. Over 20 countries participated in or observed the activity in 2019.
 “OIKADE” was a system of voluntary registration of Cypriot citizens who are abroad for any reason and an additional “tool” to assist the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in locating, communicating and providing consular assistance to Cypriot citizens. This system was replaced by the connect2cy platform.
 Version of a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers and provide feedback for future product development.