At least 13,500 Americans abroad need help getting home, state dept says

  • >>Lara Jakes and Ashley Southall, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-03-24 11:50:36 BdST

People arrive to terminal one at JFK airport after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) temporarily halted flights arriving at New York City airports due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York, US, March 21, 2020. REUTERS

An estimated 13,500 Americans abroad have asked the State Department for help returning to the United States as the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in closed borders and suspended commercial flights, two senior officials said Monday.

About 5,700 additional US citizens and legal residents have already been brought back on flights organised by the State Department, the officials said.

From Peru to Morocco to Japan, stranded Americans have pleaded for help getting home as the pandemic has spread. Over the next five days, the State Department will charter 16 flights around the world to bring home another 1,600 people, said one of the officials, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity because of department protocols on briefing the news media.

About 10 million US citizens live abroad, officials said. But the officials urged Americans who have homes overseas to consider hunkering down, underscoring that the travel assistance was designed for tourists and temporary expatriates, like students.

Those Americans should try to return to the United States before all commercial flights are shut down, the official said. There was still room on some of the flights this week for additional passengers, said the official, who urged Americans to register at the department’s travel enrollment system for information.

But scores of traveling Americans, including a group of medical students stranded in Peru, said they had yet to receive any help from the US government.

Still others said the State Department planned to cancel the passports of travelers if they did not pay for their tickets home — even though they had not been told how much the chartered airfare would cost.

“Repatriation flights are not free,” read a notice that US citizens in Ghana said they received from the US Embassy in Accra. “Your US passport will be canceled pending loan repayment arrangements. You will not be permitted to renew your passport until you’ve arranged a repayment plan with the Department of State.”

Tiffany Dillard, who has been in Ghana for a brief visit while traveling abroad as an English teacher, has struggled to leave since the United States advised Americans last week to come home or stay put.

She said she was unwilling to let her passport be canceled. “That just makes me nervous anytime someone messes with my passport any way,” Dillard, a Milwaukee native, said in an interview Monday. She said she was now considering staying in Ghana.

A spokeswoman at the State Department in Washington did not have an immediate comment when asked about the notice to cancel stranded Americans’ passports.

Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged President Donald Trump on Monday to “provide Americans overseas the support that they need” during what he called an “unprecedented pandemic.”

“No American should ever have to worry that they might be abandoned abroad by our government,” Menendez wrote in a letter to Trump.

The senior State Department officials said that in some cases, foreign governments had imposed restrictions to contain the virus that prevented US flights from departing.

One of the officials said that had been the case in Peru, where 15 students from Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina who were training to be paramedics and physician assistants were trying to leave.

The official said fewer flights were able to fly in and out of Peru because the international airport in Lima, the capital, had been shut down for the duration of the country’s quarantine. That means flights have had to fly through military airports, which do not have the capacity to manage all the additional air traffic.

More than 100 Americans who were stranded aboard the Silver Shadow cruise liner in Recife, Brazil, for more than a week returned to the United States early Monday, landing in Dallas. The Americans were the last group of 315 passengers from 18 countries to fly home from the stricken ship.

Earlier in the month, the passengers had been restricted to their rooms after a Canadian passenger fell ill and tested positive for the coronavirus. Beginning a few days ago, most of the countries with citizens aboard the Silver Shadow chartered aircraft and flew them home.

In addition to the State Department’s chartered flights, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security are also flying Americans back to the United States on government aircraft, the official said.

On Sunday, Global Guardian, an international security firm, evacuated 144 Americans who were stranded in Honduras. The company arranged for a plane to fly to the island of Roatán after getting permission from the Honduran government.

“I cannot begin to express my gratitude to the entire Global Guardian team for getting my husband and I home safely to our families and lives here in Boston,” Annie Perlick, a nurse at Boston’s Children Hospital, said in a statement.

The US military said last week it had evacuated 89 Americans out of Honduras.




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