Crisis Abroad - What the State Department Does
What can the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs do
for Americans caught in a disaster or a crisis abroad?
Earthquakes, 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.
When a crisis occurs, the State Department sets up a task force
or working group to bring together in one set of rooms 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 our
Ambassador and Foreign Service Officers at the embassy in the
In 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 telephone the State Department
immediately after the news of a disaster is broadcast.
Relatives want information on the welfare of their family members
and on the disaster. The State Department relies for hard information
on its embassies and consulates abroad. 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 responsive.
Welfare & Whereabouts
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
at post 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. As they try to get the information,
their first priority is Americans dead or injured.
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. However, the information there may not
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. The Diplomatic Pouch cannot be used to
ship personal items, including valuables, but legal documents
and correspondence relating to the estate can be transmitted by
pouch. 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.
Bureau of Consular Affairs
U.S. Department of State