State Department says 50K stranded Americans requesting help to return home

State Department says 50K stranded Americans requesting help to return home

More than 50,000 Americans abroad are asking the U.S. to help bring them home, the State Department said Wednesday night.

The number marks a dramatic increase in U.S. citizens the government has reported as needing help leaving countries that have closed their borders to stop the spread of coronavirus. The State Department earlier said it was aware of 13,500 requesting assistance, and an official warned the latest number is also bound to fluctuate.

“Our posts around the world have received requests for assistance with getting back to the United States from over 50,000 U.S. citizens,” said Ian Brownlee, who serves as the principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Consular Affairs on COVID-19, at a briefing late on Wednesday.

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"At the moment, we are keeping a running tally of the number of U.S. citizens we estimate will seek our help in returning to the United States. This number changes daily, hourly. At the moment, we’re tracking approximately 50,000 we think might seek to return to the United States," he added.

Brownlee is also the lead of the State Department’s repatriation task force, set up last week to coordinate efforts to assist Americans stuck in countries that have closed their borders.

Brownlee added the State Department is expecting to evacuate 9,000 people on 66 flights over the next nine days, with those numbers likely to increase.

The State Department has already managed to bring home more than 9,000 Americans from 28 countries since mid-January, including from China, Guatemala, Haiti, Cabo Verde, Ghana and Ukraine, as well as the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined in Japan.

“These are truly extraordinary times,” Brownlee said, "The State Department is working tirelessly all around the globe to fulfill our oldest and most important mission: the safety and security of the American people.”

The State Department last week increased its travel warning to a Level 4, instructing all Americans abroad to return to the U.S. or prepare to shelter in place.

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The State Department typically encourages Americans abroad to fly whatever commercial airlines are available, but the last-minute border closures have required the government to step in and set up chartered flights to ferry Americans home.

Embassies abroad are learning about border closures in real time, Brownlee said, with often less than 48 hours notice for travelers to get on commercial flight options before airlines end service.

“We are not being told well in advance that this is coming. We really get the same notice that the public gets, 12 hours, 24, 36 hours, whatever it is in the case of a particular country,” he said.

In Peru, a logjam at the airport, miscommunication with the Peruvian government, and a shortage of airport workers has delayed up to 4,000 Americans from returning home quickly.

The U.S. has managed to evacuate 1,000 Americans from Peru and flights are ongoing, but the State Department says it is facing a “capacity issue.”

U.S.-chartered flights only have access to a small military airport adjacent to the shuttered international airport in the capital city of Lima.

More than 1,000 Americans are stranded in Cusco, a city in southeastern Peru, and hundreds more Americans are in smaller towns and cities facing challenges to travel to the nearest airports because of police or military blockades.

The State Department recently dispatched to Peru a senior official in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs to coordinate the evacuations on the ground.

“So we’re doing what we can to help the Peruvians fill that sort of capacity gap,” Brownlee said, “and we hope — we hope — that this will keep things moving more fluidly in the future.”

The State Department says it is trying to prioritize for evacuation people with health risks, the elderly and children but anecdotal reports from Peru describe chaos with the assignment system.

At least two Americans say they received notifications to arrive to the airport for an evacuation fight after they had already returned to the U.S. and healthy travelers have posted on Twitter that they are getting flights before the most vulnerable.

Brownlee said that policy is to prioritize the most vulnerable but that they also are trying to get people on planes who are already present at airports.

“Our policy is to prioritize the more vulnerable populations. Part of it comes down to who is available at the airport at the time the manifest is being built up,” he said.

In addition to the large number of Americans stranded in Peru, Brownlee said they are tracking between 5,000 to 7,000 U.S. citizens in Ecuador requiring assistance and are working on a mix of commercial options and government charters to help evacuations.

There are also several thousand Americans in Honduras but Brownlee said the local government was helping to keep commercial flights running for tourists to return home.

“We’re committed to bring home as many Americans as we possibly can,” he said.