Evacuating Employees from Political Unrest

Adam Jacobson


October 1, 2021

A group of families waiting to board an airplane, guided by men in bright yellow vests and guarded by a man with a gun.

As dramatic evacuation scenes played out in Afghanistan this summer, companies that operate overseas or send employees to do business abroad faced a stark reminder about the human stakes of political instability. When the Taliban advanced on Kabul in their sweep back to power in Afghanistan, numerous governments, companies, NGOs and international organizations had to evacuate their international staff. Ten years prior, as protesters toppled the longtime regime of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, companies like Nissan, Shell and Nokia rushed to evacuate many employees and their families.

In some ways, these evacuations may be similar to pulling employees and their dependents out of a country due to a medical emergency. However, there are a number of unique factors that organizations must consider to prepare for and execute evacuations when political unrest increases to the point of threatening business operations and workers.

According to a 2020 statement from the United Nations, “conflict and violence are currently on the rise,” driven by “unresolved regional tensions, a breakdown in the rule of law, absent or co-opted state institutions, illicit economic gain, and the scarcity of resources exacerbated by climate change.” Given this rising threat, risk professionals and their companies must prioritize logistical planning and closely examine insurance options to protect their employees and operations abroad.

Logistics and Planning

In its report Emergency Planning Guidelines for American Businesses Abroad, the U.S. State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Group outlined three phases for evacuations:

  • Phase 1: Alert—a warning to companies and individuals of host country instability
  • Phase 2: Limited Action—increased preparation for evacuation made under conditions of increased tension or instability that could lead to partial or complete evacuation of expatriate employees and their dependents
  • Phase 3: Evacuation—final preparation and/or evacuation made under conditions in which the decision to evacuate is imminent or has already been made, and withdrawal and cessation of business is imminent or underway

In a robust crisis management plan for employee evacuations, the company should address how it will handle each of these phases. This plan should identify the service providers on which the company will rely during an evacuation, such as transportation, travel arrangements, medical care and security. It should also identify a series of potential “trigger events,” like country-wide protests, intelligence that U.S. citizens or specific locations are being targeted, or an elevated U.S. State Department threat assessment.

The plan should carefully outline the responses each event would prompt. These can include evacuating family members before pulling employees out, moving employees and their families to specific safe locations, or simply preparing for a move and assessing what to take and what to leave behind. The plan should also delineate clear lines of responsibility within the organization for those responses, including who will coordinate communication with service providers, the insurance company and in-country employees.

As much as possible, the organization and its employees should know exactly what to do in an emergency in advance. “You don’t want to have any confusion when there’s a triggering event and you have to take immediate action,” said Denise Balan, senior vice president and head of U.S. security risks for AXA XL, a division of insurer AXA. “This should be part of the fabric of the company.”

However, a plan may be useless in an actual emergency if the company does not consistently update and practice it. “All of the Fortune 1000 has resiliency plans, contingency plans, and so forth. They all have a book 300 pages long for all these different scenarios,” said Dale Buckner, president and CEO of security consulting firm Global Guardian. “The problem is they sit on a shelf and never get exercised.”

Buckner recommended that companies conduct a minimum of two desktop exercises per year with key staff, reviewing and updating contingency plans, insurance coverage and the company’s vendors, and running emergency situation scenarios to ensure preparedness and familiarity with all of the necessary details. This should drill down into specifics like which employee has a satellite phone in each location and whether it works, in case the internet and phone services are not available.

The company should also use these opportunities to conduct in-depth reviews of their in-country vendors for emergencies, including determining the individual representatives to contact. They should also verify each vendor’s current capabilities to manage evacuations and their role in these operations. Buckner warned, “If they can’t explain in detail how many vehicles are in that country or that city, how many agents they have in that country or that city, or if they say they’re coming from the outside, you’re in real trouble.” Based on their responses, the company may need to evaluate whether to switch providers.

Reaching a level of seamless response to a crisis requires training before employees are sent to work abroad and communication while they are operating in-country. This communication should include more detailed and up-to-date analysis than the routine U.S. State Department guidance and travel advisories, which usually track larger-scale events. The State Department will likely not provide day-to-day updates publicly, and given how fluid situations of political upheaval can be and how quickly they can become dangerous, it is beneficial to have experts feeding the company more frequent and specific information.

Larger companies may have these resources available in-house, but smaller companies will often hire security consultants or other subject matter experts. The organization’s insurance company can either provide such resources or coordinate with them. The company should also arrange a safe and secure way to convey information to staff, even when the country’s internet or phone lines go down. “No one should ever be in the dark about the status of the security situation in the country they’re living in,” Balan said.

In some cases, the security situation in-country may demand that key employees stay instead of evacuating. This too requires intense logistical planning in advance. “You want to make sure that you’ve got assets to get a secure safe house. You want to make sure that the roads and the routes that you’ve chosen beforehand as possible escape routes are still viable,” Balan advised. “You need to have security and in any area that you decide to assemble, you have to make sure you have capacity for the number of people you need to assist.”

Other Insurance Considerations

When evacuations are initiated, expenses can mount quickly, and potentially life-saving services will be in high demand. For example, flights out of the country can skyrocket in price. Companies often rely on insurance to help defray these costs and to access resources like up-to-the-minute security assessments or transportation and escorts to safer locations. Often, insurers will also provide consultants to help craft crisis plans and train employees.

When preparing for evacuations during political or social crises, organizations often turn to kidnap and ransom insurance policies. Risk managers should consult their broker for help understanding the services available under a standard policy or for additional enhancements. These policies often contain helpful features that some insureds may not be aware of, and there are extensions and add-ons that can help companies sending employees abroad.

“There are a couple of extensions that are available for purchase, one of which would be a security evacuate both for travelers and expatriates,” said Balan. “You could also get a natural disaster evacuation cover, available as either endorsement or sometimes standalone policies depending on the number of evacuated.” In addition to helping pay for evacuation expenses like transportation and accommodations, this coverage could also address costs like lost personal effects and employee compensation (usually up to 90 days).

In addition to kidnap and ransom coverage, there is also business travel accident or business travel insurance (BTI) coverage available. “In addition to the traditional medical and the travel coverage that a BTI policy provides, there’s also an option many times for security evacuation,” Balan said.

However, insurance has its limitations. For example, according to Balan, making timing decisions may not be entirely up to the company. “You can’t just decide, ‘I’m going to take my person out because I don’t like what I’m reading in the newspaper’ for the reimbursement to be covered.” That usually requires a declaration from an authorized state department recommending that personnel leave the country, or an assessment from the agreed-upon security consultant stating that evacuation is advisable. There are also potential trigger situations like if the host country seizes or expropriates employee or business assets or declares an employee persona non grata.

While companies may believe they have adequate protections in place for overseas employees, Buckner cautioned that many are surprised by lack of coverage in a crisis. “People also have to acknowledge that insurance is loaded with restrictions, and if you don’t understand what you’re buying, you will be disappointed,” he said.

Ultimately, protecting employees and the business’s interests during these dire situations requires risk professionals to do the work before a crisis happens. “If you can communicate now, you can organize now,” Buckner said.

Adam Jacobson is associate editor of Risk Management.