If you are in trouble abroad, will Canada come get you?

Good realistic explainer featuring the former ambassador to Lebanon:

It was Louis de Lorimier’s first posting as an ambassador for Canada when he arrived in Lebanon in September 2005, after almost a quarter-century in the foreign service.

His appointment came just a few months after then Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated in a truck bombing, and the relationship between Israel, the militant group Hezbollah and neighbouring Syria was tense.

Political and military skirmishes between the various forces in the region were not uncommon, but de Lorimier didn’t foresee he would be caught at the centre of Operation LION, Canada’s largest international evacuation effort of its citizens to date.

“You did have violence to a certain extent on the border but nothing could suggest that it would go so far,” recalls the retired career diplomat, now a fellow at the Montreal Institute of International Studies.

“Lebanon was a turning point. I think they really got the (evacuation) system much better organized after that.”

In July 2006, after Israel’s military attacked Hezbollah forces in Lebanon to retaliate for the killing and kidnapping of its soldiers, Ottawa came under heavy fire for what some criticized as chaotic and slow response to bring home its citizens stranded in the war zone. By the end of that August, 14,000 Canadians had been evacuated.

Nearly 17 years later, after a civil war erupted in Sudan between the ruling government and a paramilitary group, the Canadian government’s evacuation effort has once again raised the questions of its responsibilities to its citizens abroad and its readiness to save its people from harm’s way.

Last Saturday, Canada ended its evacuation flights to bring Canadians home from Sudan amid escalating violence and deteriorating safety conditions. Over two weeks, of the 1,728 Canadians in Sudan who had registered with the government, more than 400 had been evacuated, with hundreds of others still looking for assistance.

“Canada continues to monitor the situation actively and will continue to provide assistance to Canadians and permanent residents wishing to depart Sudan,” Global Affairs Canada said in a statement on Friday.

“Our officials will keep in contact with those who call on us for help. We will keep in touch using whatever is the most effective way to help them stay safe, be it phone, e-mail or text message.”

De Lorimier said taking care of Canadians abroad has always been a top priority for consular staff, who constantly monitor conditions on the ground and report them to Ottawa.

“One of our responsibilities is to have a plan in place to deal with social unrests and major events of that nature, or it could be earthquakes or natural disasters, and it goes as far as war,” said de Lorimier, who headed the Lebanese mission until 2008 and then served as ambassador to Belgium and Mali before he retired in 2015.

“But what is obvious is that Canada doesn’t have the assets in the region to deal as quickly as we have to deal with a huge crisis.”

There are many variables in an evacuation effort and officials have to constantly negotiate with the local security authorities to seek safe pathways for both Canada’s personnel and citizens alike.

“I think most people do have unreasonable expectations. Sure, your government is there to protect you in every way possible. Obviously, it’s what we try to do. But the government also tells people, ‘Well, you’re responsible for your own safety first and foremost,’” said de Lorimier.

“If you go to a place where there’s social unrest, or even war, well, there could be consequences. There’s only so much we can do. That’s why we have these warnings that in certain countries, you’d better be careful. It’s not that the government doesn’t want to take care of people. But sometimes you have situations where you just can’t.”

The operation in Lebanon was certainly unprecedented in terms of the scale. At the onset of the war, only 1,000 Canadians registered with the embassy, which quickly ballooned to 30,000 a week into the conflict.

Although Lebanon was under complete blockade by the Israelis who bombed the main runway at the airport and blew up its fuel depots, Canada’s strong diplomatic relationships with both countries assured safe pathways to bus its citizens to an evacuation spot and then repatriate them via Cyprus.

In Sudan, however, de Lorimier said Canadian officials are dealing with two warring parties declaring ceasefires that never hold, and there’s a complete breakdown in the rule of law. The only blessing is the main airport in the capital Khartoum seems to be working of late, letting Canada shift its emergency evacuation efforts toward assisted departures through commercial transportation to exit the country.

Still, de Lorimier said there still could be a lot of uncertainty.

For example, on the first day of the Lebanese evacuation, the Canadian government had initially secured six ships to each carry 250 people out of the Lebanon’s main port. However, at the last minute, the Turkish company that loaned the boats was not satisfied with the security assurances and decided to send just one ship.

“We had prepared more than 1,000 people to evacuate. That’s when the press reported in Canada that the operation was a mess. We got really bad press. Some people were complaining that we left them out in the sun and they didn’t have water and they didn’t have food. It was quite something,” recalled de Lorimier, who didn’t sleep for weeks then and was running on his adrenalin.

“We almost had a catastrophe because we had this 1,000 people that were waiting in a room. We weren’t expecting to give them room and board for a night. So you can imagine kids running around and older people, and we didn’t even have enough restrooms.”

Canada recognizes dual citizenships and dual citizens are treated equally as their Canadian-born peers, but the Lebanese evacuation led to a public debate about whether these individuals’ birth country or adopted country is actually responsible for them.

“If there’s a problem, is it not logical that he be supported by his birth country before being supported by the consular service of Canada, his country of adoption?” asked de Lorimier. Yet in the end, “anyone that had Canadian papers was evacuated.”

The evacuation effort would end up costing Canada $94 million, which also prompted prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2009 to restrict the passage of Canadian citizenship by descent to the first generation of Canadians born overseas.

In its post-mortem of the Lebanese operation, the Canadian Senate, made many recommendations, including urging Foreign Affairs officials to review and ensure adequate resources to missions in countries where the size of the Canadian population and regional risks are high.

In hindsight, de Lorimier said he felt the Lebanese operation was provided with proper resources, with 200 Foreign Affairs staffers redeployed from outside Lebanon to assist with the evacuation, along with additional immigration and military personnel.

“People will always say there’s not enough resources. That’s a tricky question. We evacuated 15,000 people and everybody made it … no casualties,” he noted.

“The first responsibility lies with you. You have to know what you’re getting into and where you’re going in terms of security, military and war and even tsunamis or earthquakes. There’s so many risks that you have to figure out and decide if you want to take the risk.”

Source: If you are in trouble abroad, will Canada come get you?

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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