State Department sets up task force to bring home Americans abroad
The State Department has set up a global task force to bring American citizens stuck abroad back to the U.S., as thousands of travelers have found themselves trapped in countries with closed borders to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Coronavirus Global Response Coordination Unit was formed Thursday afternoon, according to a notice reviewed by The Hill. Its mission is to support evacuation plans for U.S. citizens stuck abroad.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the task force Friday in a briefing at the White House and said the State Department is working to bring home Americans who are stranded abroad, but that the agency doesn’t yet have a full picture of how many people are overseas looking to return to the U.S.
“We have a team stood up at the State Department, the repatriation task force that is working each of these instances,” Pompeo said Friday. “We don’t know the full scale of it yet but we think we have the largest number identified.”
Pompeo on Friday encouraged affected Americans to register online so that the U.S. government can account for them.
“We’ll track and we’ll try to get everybody back just as fast as we can,” he said.
Thousands of Americans are stranded abroad — almost 2,000 U.S. citizens are stuck in Peru alone. Frustrated travelers have pressured their elected representatives for help returning from countries like Argentina, Cambodia, Guatemala, Honduras, Japan, Uzbekistan and El Salvador.
President Trump on Thursday said he was looking at using the military to bring Americans in Peru back to the U.S.
Countries around the world have started shuttering their borders in quick succession as the number of coronavirus cases rises globally.
The border closures have occurred with little to no warning for travelers, nor in coordination with other governments.
American travelers are expressing anger and frustration with U.S. embassies and the federal government for failing to provide sufficient help or information on how they can return home.
The guidance they have received — to check the embassy website for updates and contact airlines — has been criticized as ignoring the reality of the difficulty of the situation.
The task force is charged with organizing transportation through charter or noncommercial means for American citizens stranded overseas and requests from U.S. embassies “facing severe travel restrictions.”
“The Coronavirus Global Response Coordination Unit (CGRCU) has designated a Repatriation Task Force to support U.S. citizens abroad and evacuation operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a notice that went out to State Department employees and was viewed by The Hill.
“The Repatriation Task Force was operational as of March 19 at 1300, and is directly charged with the following: coordinating and providing support for private American citizens stranded overseas; managing requests from posts facing severe travel restrictions requesting transportation assistance to implement Authorized or Ordered Departure; and supporting any evacuation operations of official or private American citizens involving charter or non-commercial means.”
The creation of the task force comes as the State Department on Thursday instituted a level four travel advisory for the globe — its most serious warning to Americans to abandon plans for international travel, immediately return to the U.S. if already overseas or prepare to shelter in place.
The U.S. Embassy in Morocco on Friday arranged for chartered flights to bring Americans stuck in the country to London, and then connecting flights to the U.S.
Yet it’s unclear if all Americans were able to leave; the flights only left Marrakesh and the announcement was made with less than 24 hours notice.
The order for evacuating Americans abroad can only come from Washington, said Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a three-time ambassador.
“This is a time of great confusion,” he told The Hill. “No embassy is going to have greater clarity on local conditions than the host government it’s working with and a lot of them are going to be making decisions day-by-day. And evacuations are Washington decisions so embassies will be limited in what they can say if decisions are lagging in D.C.”
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