“We’ll keep going”

06.04.2020 - Interview

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in an interview with the Rheinische Post on the German Government’s repatriation operation.

Foreign Minister Maas in the Federal Foreign Office Crisis Response Centre
Foreign Minister Maas in the Federal Foreign Office Crisis Response Centre© Thomas Koehler/photothek.de
How many German nationals have you been able to repatriate within what period of time?

Almost 200,000 travellers were brought home within two and half weeks, some of whom found themselves in extremely difficult circumstances. On some days, there were 20 planes in the air at the same time. Logistically, that required an immense effort on the part of everyone involved. Our Crisis Response Centre is used to major challenges. However, the Federal Foreign Office isn’t an airline which can master something like this every day. It was a steep learning curve at first. As well as improvisation, it required considerable attention to detail: in-depth talks with authorities, landing permissions for airlines; planning stopovers, transport for travellers on the ground – that’s extremely difficult when public life has come to a standstill. And if just one domino falls the wrong way then you have to take a deep breath and start again. Wherever necessary, I’ve provided additional support at political level and looked for solutions with my counterparts.

How many flights were there/how many planes were involved?

The Federal Foreign Office alone provided 200 special flights. These were mostly particularly complicated cases where we had to fly people out of the most remote locations – I’m thinking here of cruise ships or Peru and New Zealand. We receive calls for help telling us that people are stuck. We can’t always rely on the understanding of the authorities which, of course, are mainly concerned about their own healthcare measures. It’s always been said that Germans are world champions when it comes to travelling and we’ve now realised that this really is true. If even very small embassies selflessly help hundreds, in some cases thousands of people, then that’s an exceptional situation. Time and again, we have to ask people to be patient when we can’t help everyone immediately.

All in all, what has this operation cost? To what degree will those repatriated have to contribute to the cost? Which repatriations incurred the highest costs?

Initially, 50 million euros were made available to us. We then received an additional 50 million euros in the supplementary budget. In the end, it probably won’t cost that much but it’s difficult to state an exact sum in the middle of an ongoing operation. We’ll help first and then work out the cost. There’s no alternative in an emergency like this. We haven’t billed the travellers yet, nor taken into account the EU subsidies for transporting EU nationals.

When will the repatriation operation officially end?

At the moment, we’re cooperating with many countries where repatriations are difficult. We want to repatriate German travellers – that’s our goal. How long it’ll take before German nationals have been repatriated from every country isn’t solely up to us. That’s why we haven’t set a fixed deadline. Even once the large majority of travellers have been brought home, we’ll keep going.

What can German nationals abroad who didn’t get a seat on one of the planes do?

They should contact one of our embassies or consulates. We’ve now entered a phase where there are no more simple one-fits-all solutions. Wherever tailor-made solutions are needed, experts with all their knowledge and our local employees with all their know-how are working in our missions abroad to find them. Often there are still solutions to be found or we find new, possibly European solutions. The cooperation with our partners is going very well. We have already managed to bring back more than 3600 travellers from other countries. And vice versa, many Germans have been repatriated by other countries. Witnessing this solidarity makes me feel hopeful about the next phases of the corona crisis.

Would you like to nominate someone for the Order of Merit for their hard work and dedication during the repatriation operation? Perhaps Till Knorn?

Many staff members have gone to their limit working on this for the last three weeks. During this period, the Help Desk has had three times as many calls as it would normally have in the course of an entire year. That’s team play under the most adverse conditions, especially abroad. As head of the Ministry, I’m proud of this achievement. And the travellers’ appreciation for this operation has been overwhelming. It’s encouraging to see how we’ve come together in the crisis – in the figurative sense, of course. We shouldn’t forget that alongside the professionals, many individuals who normally do quite different work are providing help. There are many travellers and members of implementing organisations that have worked selflessly. At the same time, I want to stress that we haven’t reached the finishing line yet. We’re still working tirelessly to help the remaining Germans abroad.

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