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The State Dept.'s Unprecedented Effort To Bring Back Americans Stranded Abroad


For about 30,000 Americans still stranded overseas, getting home has been tough. Coronavirus shutdowns are causing delays. And travelers abroad are also complaining about poor communication from U.S. embassies. Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Ten days ago, the State Department issued an advisory urging any U.S. citizens overseas to return home as soon as they could. Otherwise, be prepared to shelter in place indefinitely. But by then, borders were already closing. International flights were being cancelled. The window of opportunity quickly closed for Americans stuck in far-off places.

IAN BROWNLEE: We're still working to connect people to commercial options where those flights are available and to lay on charter flights where they are not.

NORTHAM: That's Ian Brownlee, who runs the State Department's repatriation task force. He says the magnitude of the operation to get citizens home is unprecedented. U.S. military aircraft have already been used. And Brownlee says the State Department is looking to the Pentagon for more help.

BROWNLEE: This is fairly complex contractual work. The State Department's capacity to do this is being strained. We're talking with the Department of Defense as to whether they can essentially help us out in lining up aircraft.

NORTHAM: There's a whole industry that deals with evacuations that the State Department can also tap into. Dale Buckner is part of that. His private security service Global Guardian normally caters to corporations. Now they've been working with the State Department. Buckner says he has a full roster this weekend.

DALE BUCKNER: Morocco, Spain, Mexico, UAE, New Zealand, Kenya and Israel are all in the queue. And I think they'll be added. On average, we're flying anywhere between four to six times a day.

NORTHAM: Buckner expects that pace to keep up for a few more weeks. So far, the State Department has repatriated more than 18,000 people. But the challenges are enormous as U.S. diplomats wrangle with bureaucracies and logistics in countries where Americans are stranded because of the coronavirus. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.

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