What If I … Am In A Country Where There’s A Political Emergency?

If you're in a remote part of a country experiencing a politic al emergency -- that's when your embassy or consulate can really help.
If you’re in a remote part of a country experiencing a politic al emergency — that’s when your embassy or consulate can really help. (James Rollins photo.)

By Molly Jensen

The word “emergency” almost instantly puts people into a panic, especially when a government declares that their country is in one. Even more so when you have a vacation booked for said country. And especially if you’re in that country when the emergency is declared.

Now before you go cancelling everything or hopping the next flight out to anywhere, let’s talk this through.

The point of a government declaring a situation an “emergency” is so it can bypass time-consuming paperwork and procedures, thus putting it in a better position to deal with the situation at hand. It’s also a way of making the public aware of the situation and bringing more attention to the issue.

The most common kind of emergency is a “state of emergency.” Usually, these situation develops because of a natural disaster, and the situation is severe enough to require government assistance.

Then there is a “complex political emergency,” which normally arise from conflict and instability. These issues have social, political, and/or economic origins and involve the abuse of human rights, collapse of structures, and possibly armed conflict.

There aren’t standardized policies and procedures for severe situations and emergencies. For example, when the United States declares a state of emergency, it is one of a handful of countries that bans business with people and organizations involved in global conflicts. These emergencies don’t affect most Americans, but the government sees it as an important reason to have a state of emergency.

When you’re going to be traveling internationally, it’s smart to read up on any political situations affecting your travel destinations, and watch the news as your trip gets closer. If political situations are escalating and you don’t feel comfortable traveling, you can go forward with cancelling your flight and any other reservations you have. There’s no scientific way of deciding whether or not you should travel to a specific country – it’s all about how comfortable you feel traveling there.

If you do choose to continue your trip, there are things you can keep in mind while traveling:

  • Give your itinerary to someone at home so they’ll know where you are. Then update them if the itinerary changes, because what’s the point of giving someone your itinerary if you aren’t going to be able to be found using it?
  • Like on any other trip, be cautious of theft – only bring necessary forms of identification and credit cards.
  • Know the address, phone number, and how to get to where you’re staying without having to look it up on your smartphone.
  • Be alert and aware of your surroundings when you’re straying from touristy areas. If the area feels shady, it probably is.
  • And on that note, don’t go looking for trouble — especially if you don’t know the customs and the depth of the situation you may be getting into.
  • If you become a victim of a crime, get immediate help by contacting the local police and reporting the incident. (Don’t forget to get a copy of the police report.) Then you can contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for assistance.

Speaking of U.S. embassies and consulates, they represent the U.S. government in a foreign country. They act as communication centers between the U.S. government and the host government (whatever country it’s in). The embassy is the larger of the two, normally located in a country’s capital, with consulates being smaller and located in other major cities.

U.S. embassies and consulates can be an excellent source of information and assistance. They know the local government and can help with:

  • replacing a lost or stolen passport
  • contacting family or friends back home
  • locating medical or legal assistance
  • addressing emergency needs that arise as a result of a crime
  • obtaining information about victim resources

Given all this, it’s smart to know the phone number for the nearest embassy or consulate.

Another very smart step to take when traveling internationally is to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a free service offered through the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. When you’re enrolled in STEP, the State Department can contact you (via email or through notifications sent through a dedicated app) if there’s a change in safety conditions of the country you are visiting and they can help family and friends back home get in touch with you in an emergency. All great reasons to register your trip in STEP! (Editor’s Note: For more information on STEP, check out Sharyn Alden’s post here.)

If you’re traveling and political situations escalate, coming home early may be difficult. Political turmoil or natural disaster can increase the amount of people leaving a country, and finding an earlier flight may not be possible. You can try calling the airline, but nothing’s guaranteed. (Actually, flight expert Johnny Jet recommends simultaneously calling and contacting the airline via social media and trying to work with the desk agent at the airport. The more options, the better.)

Depending on the severity of the situation, the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate can help you get out of the country. When unsafe situations arise, they work with a task force in Washington, D.C., to help get U.S. citizens out. While they can’t order U.S. citizens to leave a foreign country, they can provide information and assist those who do want to leave. Here’s where STEP really helps.

Note: If you receive evacuation assistance, you will probably be required to sign a promissory note agreeing to reimburse the government for some of the evacuation costs. (Travel insurance can help with this cost.)

In the end, you may have to just wait out your trip. If this is the case, go back and read our little list of safety precautions. Be smarter than usual, use your common sense, and don’t miss your flight home.

Molly Jensen is a member of the marketing team at Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection.