Overseas Emergency & Crisis Tips
hurricanes, political upheavals, acts of terrorism, and
hijackings are only some of the events threatening the safety
of Americans abroad. Each event is unique and poses its
own special difficulties. However, for the State Department
there are certain responsibilities and actions that apply
in every disaster or crisis.
a crisis occurs, the State Department sets up a task force
or working group to bring together, all the people necessary
to work on that event. Usually this Washington task force
will be in touch by telephone 24 hours a day with the Ambassador
and Foreign Service Officers at the embassy in the country
a task force, the immediate job of the State Department's
Bureau of Consular Affairs is to respond to the thousands
of concerned relatives and friends who begin to contact
the State Department immediately after hearing news of a
want information on the welfare of their family members
and on the disaster. The State Department relies on its
embassies and consulates abroad for hard information. Often
these installations are also affected by the disaster and
lack electricity, phone lines, gasoline, etc. Nevertheless,
foreign service officers work hard to get information back
to Washington as quickly as possible. This is rarely as
quickly as the press is able to relay information. Foreign
Service Officers cannot speculate; their information must
be accurate. Often this means getting important information
from the local government, which may or may not be immediately
As concerned relatives call in, officers of the Bureau of
Consular Affairs collect the names of the Americans possibly
involved in the disaster and pass them to the embassy and
consulates. Officers attempt to locate these Americans in
order to report on their welfare. The officers work with
local authorities and, depending on the circumstances, may
personally search hotels, airports, hospitals, or even prisons.
Their first priority is locating injured or deceased Americans.
When an American dies abroad, the Bureau of Consular Affairs
must locate and inform the next-of-kin. Sometimes discovering
the next-of-kin is difficult. If the American's name is
known, the Bureau's Office of Passport Services will search
for his or her passport application.
The Bureau of Consular Affairs provides guidance to grieving family members on how to make arrangements for local burial or return of the remains to the U.S. The disposition of remains is affected by local laws, customs, and facilities, which are often vastly different from those in the U.S. The Bureau of Consular Affairs relays the family's instructions and necessary private funds to cover the costs involved to the embassy or consulate. The Department of State has no funds to assist in the return of remains or ashes of American citizens who die abroad. Upon completion of all formalities, the consular officer abroad prepares an official Foreign Service Report of Death, based upon the local death certificate, and sends it to the next-of-kin or legal representative for use in U.S. courts to settle estate matters.
A U.S. consular officer overseas has statutory responsibility for the personal estate of an American who dies abroad if the deceased has no legal representative in the country where the death occurred. The consular officer takes possession of personal effects, such as convertible assets, apparel, jewelry, personal documents and papers. The officer prepares an inventory and then carries out instructions from members of the deceased's family concerning the effects. A final statement of the account is then sent to the next-of-kin. In Washington, the Bureau of Consular Affairs gives next-of-kin guidance on procedures to follow in preparing Letters Testamentary, Letters of Administration, and Affidavits of Next-of-Kin as acceptable evidence of legal claim of an estate.
In the case of an injured American, the embassy or consulate abroad notifies the task force, which notifies family members in the U.S. The Bureau of Consular Affairs can assist in sending private funds to the injured American; frequently it collects information on the individual's prior medical history and forwards it to the embassy or consulate. When necessary, the State Department assists in arranging the return of the injured American to the U.S. commercially, with appropriate medical escort, via commercial air ambulance or, occasionally, by U.S. Air Force medical evacuation aircraft. The use of Air Force facilities for a medical evacuation is authorized only under certain stringent conditions, and when commercial evacuation is not possible. The full expense must be borne by the injured American or his family.
Sometimes commercial transportation entering and leaving a country is disrupted during a political upheaval or natural disaster. If this happens, and if it appears unsafe for Americans to remain, the embassy and consulates will work with the task force in Washington to charter special airflights and ground transportation to help Americans to depart. The U.S. Government cannot order Americans to leave a foreign country. It can only advise and try to assist those who wish to leave.
The provisions of the Privacy Act are designed to protect the privacy and rights of Americans, but occasionally they complicate our efforts to assist citizens abroad. As a rule, consular officers may not reveal information regarding an individual Americans location, welfare, intentions, or problems to anyone, including family members and Congressional representatives, without the expressed consent of that individual. Although sympathetic to the distress this can cause concerned families, consular officers must comply with the provisions of the Privacy Act.
(Source: Bureau of Consular Affairs)