DFA: Evacuating 8,000 stranded Irish during pandemic was biggest challenge ever faced

DFA: Evacuating 8,000 stranded Irish during pandemic was biggest challenge ever faced

Simon Coveney, Minister for Foreign Affairs (left) and Niall Burgess, Secretary General, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ireland. File picture: Julien Behal Photography

Evacuating 8,000 stranded Irish people from every part of the world when Covid hit has been the biggest challenge ever faced by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Embassies are now involved in jobs that are "wholly new" including securing PPE and getting people home from multiple countries at the same time, the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs' has said.

"We've never had to do something on this scale or this complexity before," Niall Burgess, the secretary general of the department said.

"It's in the nature of how Irish people travel, that they go everywhere. And we go to parts of the world that, in many cases, others don't.

"So, the sheer spread of Irish people around the globe when this pandemic hit was a factor, and in many cases, we were trying to help people in countries where we don't have embassies."

In an interview with the Irish Examiner, Mr Burgess said when Covid-19 began to spread, staff in the Colombian embassy were involved in getting Irish citizens out of Venezuela, while the mission in Chile helped Irish people who were stranded in Peru.

"We don't have an embassy in the Philippines, yet there were quite a lot of Irish people who were traveling there, and not just in Manila or in well travelled parts of the Philippines," he said.

As a result the embassy in Singapore spent an "enormous" amount of time in securing flights for people and getting them home.

Mr Burgess added: "We had a lot of citizens in Thailand again not all of them in Bangkok. So, you know embassies we're trying to help people to get connections in circumstances where the staff and embassies couldn't travel easily themselves because of lockdowns in those countries.

We've prided ourselves on giving 24-hour consular support to our citizens if there's a consular issue. That becomes the priority for an embassy, from the moment that an issue emerges, but we've never had to do something on this scale or this complexity before.

Mr Burgess said we are now "catching up with other countries" and have been filling "very obvious gaps" such as opening an embassy in New Zealand and a consulate in Western Canada.

Ireland is due to open 26 new embassies or consulates by 2025 as part of the 'Global Ireland' initiative.

Missions will soon be opened in Rabat, Morocco; Manila in the Philippines and in Kiev in Ukraine.

Since March, a massive effort has put into the procurement of PPE, which was in short supply across the globe when the pandemic first hit.

Mr Burgess said embassy staff have played a crucial role in securing PPE from China and Korea as well as medical equipment from Japan.

"That's not something normally that an embassy or foreign ministry does but we worked incredibly closely with the HSE with IDA around that exercise.

"This is valuable support for the Department of Health and for NPHET but it has required embassies to go out and establish new networks with parts of government that they wouldn't normally have close connections with. A lot of what's happened over the last few months has been wholly new," he said.

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