At the DPB on April 27, the State Department said that Embassy Kathmandu remains open and the U.S. Embassy and the American Club continue to shelter U.S. citizens and their family members as well as dozens of non-Americans. There are reportedly about 85 U.S. citizens at the chancery and about 220 U.S. citizens at the American Club. The spokesman said he is “not aware of any significant damage, at least not that is impeding their [embassy’s] operations.”
Embassy Kathmandu staff is reportedly being supplemented with resources in the region “to better enable us to respond to – not only to the things concerning U.S. citizens, but also liaison coordination with the U.S. Government and such.” All of the American personnel at the embassy are accounted for. The embassy is continuing its efforts to account for all its local employees. Meanwhile, the DART and the search and rescue teams have arrived in country.
Below is from the official proposal to be published on the Federal Register tomorrow eliminating the visa page insert (VPI) service for regular fee U.S. passports:
The Department proposes eliminating the visa page insert service for regular fee passport book holders beginning January 1, 2016. The expected effective date of this rule coincides with when the Department expects to begin issuing an updated version of the Next Generation Passport book. The Department routinely updates the technology used to produce U.S. passport books so that U.S. passport books use the most current anti-fraud and anti-counterfeit measures. The Next Generation Passport, which is the next update of the U.S. passport book, will contain a polycarbonate data-page and will be personalized with laser engraving. This passport will also employ conical laser perforation of the passport number through the data and visa pages; display a general artwork upgrade and new security features including watermark, security artwork, optical variable security devices, tactile features, and optically variable inks. The primary reason for eliminating visa page inserts is to protect the integrity of the Next Generation Passport books.
In 2012, an interagency working group tasked with overseeing the development and deployment of Next Generation Passport books found that visa page inserts could compromise the effectiveness of security features of the new passport books that are intended to provide greater protections against fraud and misuse. To maximize the effectiveness of the Next Generation Passport that is expected to be issued to the general public in 2016, the Department considered whether visa page inserts could be phased out at the time that the Department begins to issue the new passport books.
As part of this study, the Department considered the extent of the public’s usage of visa page inserts, costs to the Department of eliminating the service, and whether any inconvenience to the public could be minimized. A study of a sample of visa page insert applications revealed that a significant majority of those applying for visa page inserts had them added to 28-page passport books, rather than to the larger 52-page books. A set of visa page inserts is 24 pages. Accordingly, a 52-page passport book is the same size as a 28-page book with a set of extra visa pages. The Department determined that the demand for additional visa pages would be substantially reduced by issuing only the larger 52-page passport books to overseas U.S. passport applicants. Accordingly, the Department has begun issuing the 52-page book to overseas applicants, who are the most likely to apply for extra visa pages, at no additional cost. This should further reduce the already limited demand for visa page inserts, thus making the rule’s impact on the public very minimal. Individuals who apply for U.S. passports within the United States will continue to have the option to request a 52-page passport at no additional charge.
Each version of the Next Generation Passport book contains two fewer pages total, but the same number of visa pages as the passport books currently in circulation. Accordingly, after the Department begins issuing the Next Generation Passport book, all domestic passport book applicants will still have the option to choose between a 26-page passport book and a larger 50-page passport book, but the larger 50-page passport books will be automatically issued to people applying overseas.
The Department believes the limited demand for visa page inserts is outweighed by the importance of ensuring that the Next Generation Passport provides the maximum protection against fraud and misuse. Furthermore, the Department must monitor unused inventories of passport products, and the elimination of visa page inserts would facilitate more secure inventory controls. Accordingly, the Department proposes eliminating visa page inserts in passport books issued to the general public beginning January 1, 2016.
image from state.gov click for larger view
When news about the elimination of passport page inserts first surfaced in late March, we went looking for answers. A State Department official responded to our inquiry as follows, with emphasis on security and other interesting details:
The Department’s highest priority is to protect the lives and interests of U.S. citizens and this includes our commitment to ensure the U.S. passport remains the most secure travel document in the world. As we look forward to the next version of the U.S. passport, an internal focus group determined that supplemental visa pages pose vulnerabilities to both the physical security of the passport and the issuance process. While the United States is the only country to offer the option of adding additional visa pages to passports, below is some additional data which helped us arrive at our decision:
The total demand for additional visa pages is quite small. In FY 2012, we saw approximately 168,000 requests for additional pages compared to 12 million passport issuances.
For years have we have offered two passport book sizes to the American public: 28 pages and 52 pages. In FY2013 we estimated that 97% of all passport renewals used fewer than 18 visa pages, a strong indication that the current book sizes we offer meet the needs of the majority of American travelers.
To meet the needs of frequent travelers, we began issuing the 52-page passport books at all overseas posts which is where most requests for additional visa pages are processed.
Customers can renew their passports via expedited service both domestically and overseas at U.S. consulates and embassies.
We realize some frequent travelers may have concerns about this decision, but it is our duty to implement policies that reinforce and maintain the security of the passport. The United States allows travelers to enter into the country with a valid visa in an expired passport, as long as both passports (the valid and the expired one with the visa) are from the same country and type. Many other governments have similar regulations. However, we recommend that travelers obtain the latest information on visas and entry requirements from the nearest embassy or consulate of destination country before traveling.
According to CA, after the proposed rule is announced on the Federal Register, the Bureau of Consular Affairs will conduct outreach to educate the public on the elimination of visa pages insert (VPI), the effects of this decision, and alternative consular services.
Interested parties may submit comments for 60 days starting April 29, by any of the following methods:
Mail (paper, disk, or CD-ROM): U.S. Department of State, Office of Passport Services, Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA/PPT), Attn: CA/PPT/IA, 44132 Mercure Circle, P.O. Box 1227, Sterling, Virginia 20166-1227.
WaPo reported last week that federal employees responsible for reviewing and processing U.S. passports are now prohibited from bringing their cellphones to work. The new rule would affect the 1,200 government workers and 1,000 private contractors in passport offices across 22 domestic locations. What started this off? Who knows except that there apparently was a contractor in Houston:
“The rumor among passport workers is that a contractor in Houston was taking pictures of private information on passports.”
A State Department official confirmed the new policy to WaPo: “The Department has a serious and important obligation to protect the personally identifiable information (PII) of U.S. citizens applying for passports,” the official said. “Prohibiting cellphones throughout our Passport Agencies, where employees review and process passport applications, is an effort to further protect passport applicant’s PII.”
The National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) Local 1998 that represents Passport Agency workers nationwide is not happy. The union wondered what use is getting these employees secret clearances if they can’t be trusted with the information?
On April 25, a 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal, approximately 80 km from the capital Kathmandu. More than a thousand people have reportedly been killed with the number expected to go up. USAID is launching a a DART team to respond. U.S. citizens in need of urgent assistance in Nepal should call +977 1 423 4068. U.S. citizens from the U.S. and Canada needing assistance in Nepal should call 1-888-407-4747 or email the State Department at NepalEmergencyUSC@state.gov. Google has also rolled out its Person Finder.
Via the USGS:
The April 25, 2015 M 7.8 Nepal earthquake occurred as the result of thrust faulting on or near the main frontal thrust between the subducting India plate and the overriding Eurasia plate to the north. At the location of this earthquake, approximately 80 km to the northwest of the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, the India plate is converging with Eurasia at a rate of 45 mm/yr towards the north-northeast, driving the uplift of the Himalayan mountain range. The preliminary location, size and focal mechanism of the April 25 earthquake are consistent with its occurrence on the main subduction thrust interface between the India and Eurasia plates.
Although a major plate boundary with a history of large-to-great sized earthquakes, large earthquakes on the Himalayan thrust are rare in the documented historical era. Just four events of M6 or larger have occurred within 250 km of the April 25, 2015 earthquake over the past century. One, a M 6.9 earthquake in August 1988, 240 km to the southeast of the April 25 event, caused close to 1500 fatalities. The largest, an M 8.0 event known as the 1934 Nepal-Bihar earthquake, occurred in a similar location to the 1988 event. It severely damaged Kathmandu, and is thought to have caused around 10,600 fatalities.
“My son served in the army for four years. In Iraq. He served because we love our country. As we should. Now look at us?”
Muna is from Buffalo in upstate New York. Her family is among the dozens of Americans caught in the crossfire of warring parties in Yemen. And although many other countries evacuated their citizens, India most notably ferrying out around 5,000, the United States has said it is too dangerous for them to directly evacuate American nationals.
screenshot of CNN video
For Muna, her ordeal ended at Djibouti Port where Christina Higgins, the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission, was among the embassy staff waiting to meet them. I asked Higgins about the sense of abandonment Muna and many of the other Americans trapped in Yemen said they felt.
“We have one of the branches of al Qaeda that’s especially active. There’s the Houthis — neither of these two groups friendly to U.S. citizens. We’ve had to weigh very, very carefully what is the safest way, the best way for us to help them.”
Higgins said ultimately each U.S. citizen is going to have to judge what is best for themselves and their families.
“For many U.S. citizens, that’s going to mean sheltering in place. For other U.S. citizens, we’re actively working at getting information to them on different avenues for travel out of Yemen.”
IOM announced today that it has temporarily suspended is evacuation operations in Yemen. It also says, “To date, operations continue to be hampered by unacceptable demands in regard to the identity of passengers to be evacuated by IOM. Security conditions within and around Sana’a airport have also worsened, affecting the ability of IOM staff to operate on airport grounds.”
Meanwhile in Djibouti:
Also this one on the DPB on April 20, we’re not sure which email is this referring to:
QUESTION: — between a Yemen – or a U.S. citizen stuck in Yemen.
MS HARF: Yep.
QUESTION: I know you can’t comment on the specific case —
MS HARF: Correct.
QUESTION: — but just the language of that email that she had the exchange with, is that the kind of language that Americans still stuck in Yemen can expect?
MS HARF: Yes, I saw that email exchange. I think a couple points on that. The first is if you look at a majority of that email, it’s really the same messages I’ve been giving from the podium about the fact that we have been warning for some time, that we are trying to do things to assist. And we have a number of people – we’ve actually increased our consular staff in Djibouti to help consular services to Americans who have been able to leave Yemen. But we have consular officers who are working around the clock in Djibouti and elsewhere doing so.
I think, look, that language is probably not typical of the services we’re providing to Americans, candidly. I probably wouldn’t have used it. But I think looking at our broader efforts in terms of the consular support we’re giving to Americans, even in a very difficult operating environment where we don’t have an embassy, where we have been warning, we – our consular officers really are working very hard to get them what they need even, again, under very difficult circumstances.
< * >
The State Department to date has refused to give an estimate a guesstimate on the American citizen population in Yemen. The OIG report back in 2010 estimated that the Yemeni-American community was about 55,000. Our source from Consular Affairs who is not authorized to speak for the bureau indicates that the most recent estimate is actually much higher than that OIG number.
Odd thing about this? There was a congressional hearing on Yemen several days ago. The congressional reps did not ask about this. The NEA principal deputy assistance secretary of state on that hearing did not talk about this. And so far, we haven’t heard from the angry old men in the Senate chamber screaming over the abandonment of U.S. citizens in foreign country.
In related news, last week, the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government on behalf of dozens of Yemeni-Americans trapped in Yemen for failure to evacuate them. Today, a San Francisco man has sued the State Department in federal court, claiming that American embassy officials in Yemen illegally revoked his passport and left him stranded in that country for more than a year. This passport revocation case is just the latest in a string of lawsuits alleging improper revocation of passports by the U.S. Embassy in Yemen.
We asked about consular staffing support because we anticipate that the evacuees coming from Yemen would have a good number of undocumented family members. Not all embassy staffers are well-versed in citizenship and passport regulations. So we are pleased to hear that reinforcements are there with more in the works.
Ambassador Kelly was nominated to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Djibouti on On April 7, 2014. He assumed the ambassadorial duties on September 8, 2014. Prior to this appointment, he served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs from August 2011 to September 2014.
Updated with details from April 8 Daily Press Briefing:
QUESTION: Right. The ambassador said today earlier, I think, that they were getting reinforcements to help. What does that mean?
MS HARF: Yeah, so I have some – yep, I have some more information on that. So while awaiting security screening and processing by Djiboutian immigration officials, U.S. citizens and their families have been offered food, water, medical attention, hygiene items, infant care items, access to phones to contact relatives, and when feasible, a place to – it’s quite hot there; I think a place to stay and remain that’s out of the heat and a little more comfortable. These have been – much of this food and the items have been provided by embassy employees and local staff, which I think is important. The Department of Homeland Security has granted exceptional authority for the consular team in Djibouti to accept and approve immigrant visa petitions for spouses, children, and parents of U.S. citizens. The State Department is working to transfer immigrant visa cases for recently arrived refugees to Djibouti. We are also increasing consular staffing in Djibouti in order to process petitions for immigrant visa cases as quickly as possible; also to help Yemeni – help U.S. citizens with Yemeni family members find long-term housing while they work through their options here.
So we are doing a number of things in Djibouti. This is where many of people – the people leaving Yemen have gone. Our ambassador, I think, is sharing some of these experiences on Twitter, so I’d check those out as well.
QUESTION: Yeah, that’s where that came – but do you have a rough estimate? Is it a couple hundred people? How many are we talking about?
MS HARF: We’re not exactly sure. We’ve – I think he tweeted something like 149 or something like that. We know of a couple hundred; we just don’t know if that’s everyone.
MS HARF: So we don’t know how accurate it is.
QUESTION: But that doesn’t – that’s only the ones who have American citizenship. That might not include —
MS HARF: Correct.
QUESTION: — their families and spouses.
MS HARF: That is my understanding.
QUESTION: And so when you have – DHS has given your – are they sending people there, or is it they’ve just basically delegated —
MS HARF: Our – I think our consular team is sending additional people there.
QUESTION: So if you are a – the wife of an American citizen who is trying to get an immigrant visa, what’s the timeframe we’re talking about – looking at here?
MS HARF: I don’t know what the timeframe is. I’m happy to check. I don’t know.
QUESTION: But they would have to stay, though, in Djibouti until —
MS HARF: Well, they couldn’t come to the United States, ostensibly.
QUESTION: Okay. So —
MS HARF: Right.
QUESTION: But the process, though, is not a short one, is it? I mean, it’s —
MS HARF: I – Matt, I —
QUESTION: I’m not saying – I’m not making the argument that it is.
MS HARF: I don’t know. I’m happy to check. I don’t know.
The US Embassy in Djibouti says that the crisis in Yemen has become a top priority for the embassy and that Ambassador Tom Kelly and his staff have worked very closely with their Djiboutian counterparts to provide support and assistance to the American evacuees from Yemen .
More photos available here. There was a time not too long ago when the consular section at Embassy Djibouti consisted on one entry level FSO and three local staff. We are presuming that in anticipation of the arrival of evacuees from Yemen that the CA bureau had sent additional temporary assistance to Djibouti but we have yet to confirm that.
Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Yemen announced today that another Indian naval ship, the Sumitra, is currently in Hodeidah and will be departing for Djibouti either tonight or tomorrow. As was the case two days ago, the embassy has no information on who to contact to board this ship. The State Department Yemen Crisis page is here.
@Diplopundit During a crisis, everyone mobilizes to help. That’s what we’re doing. Reinforcements are here and more will come.
The Indian-assisted evacuation is not the first time Americans are evacuated by a foreign mission. According to the GAO, in 2004, about 400 American citizens from West Africa were evacuated on foreign government-arranged aircraft. That unnamed post “extensively coordinated and communicated with foreign missions” presumably because its operation had not been suspended or its staff relocated elsewhere, unlike the case in Yemen. Although not identified by the GAO report, we think this was the French Government-assisted evacuation from the Ivory Coast in 2004.
A second embassy update on April 6 indicates another departure option from Yemen though the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Below is part of the message:
April 6, 2015 | The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is planning to arrange a flight from Sana’a to Djibouti the week of April 6. U.S. citizens in Yemen who wish to avail themselves of this opportunity should contact the Mr. Anwar Alhakami of the IOM at email@example.com or 967-7155-55033. The Department of State cannot guarantee that all U.S. citizens seeking to depart via an IOM flight can be accommodated. All U.S. citizens seeking to depart require valid U.S. passports.
image via IOM click for larger view
According to IOM, while a number of governments have taken steps to evacuate their nationals from Yemen, whether by sea or air, many have not been able to do so, and have instead called on IOM’s assistance to extract their nationals who remain stranded there. As of 1 April, over 11,000 such requests had been received by IOM. IOM is now seeking an initial USD 10 million in funds to enable it “to deliver humanitarian evacuation assistance to a first caseload of 5,000 stranded and vulnerable migrants.”
To date, IOM has received requests to support the humanitarian evacuation of over 11,000 nationals from 22 governments.
Responding to Member States’ requests for IOM’s assistance, the Director General has approved the mobilization of the Organization’s Migration Emergency Funding Mechanism (MEFM) with an initial loan towards the initiation of evacuation operations. The MEFM, however, does not have sufficient resources to meet the requirements presented by the scale of the operation that would need to be established.
IOM’s Humanitarian Evacuation Cell has been activated and surge support has been deployed across the region to help coordinate and organize these efforts. IOM has identified air charter service providers who are able to operate between Yemen and concerned countries. All-inclusive, per capita air transportation costs, for such an operation amount to approximately USD 1,100, based on quotations so far received from aircraft operators, though at this stage IOM continues to consider all potential options, including air and land routes.
With this appeal, IOM aims to launch immediate evacuation operations in a manner that complements efforts so far undertaken by concerned governments, and has set an initial target of 5,000 stranded and vulnerable migrants to be transported from Yemen to their respective countries of origin. IOM will be working closely with authorities in receiving and transit countries, airlines, civil aviation and military authorities of involved countries, and consular authorities in both Yemen and countries of origin to ensure that assisted migrants have adequate documentation, are registered (manifested), are able to depart from Yemen and return to their countries of origin in a seamless manner.
Provisions are also being made to cover the provision of pre-departure assistance within Yemen through the mobilization of IOM’s 200+ staff within the country. Assistance will include ground transportation, medical assistance and basic supplies for migrants awaiting departure and logistical support at points of embarkation. In countries of origin, assistance will need to include onward transportation from ports of entry to final in-country destinations. This additional assistance is estimated to amount to USD 400 per capita.
IOM also says that among its lessons learnt from the Libya evacuation in 2011 is the critical importance of “establishing adequate support measures in countries of origin to receive migrants at ports of entry and provide basic support packages on arrival and, in partnership with country-based stakeholders and authorities, address prevalent reintegration challenges. In so doing, IOM considers in-country on-arrival assistance an intrinsic part of humanitarian evacuation operations, while also taking into account reintegration challenges in areas of return to ensure the sustainability of returns, prevent secondary displacement and mitigate potential social tension that may arise.”
An American who recently fled Sana’a estimated that there are “perhaps 300 Americans” stranded in Yemen. According to the Guardian, the State Department said it cannot estimate how many Americans are in Yemen.
Asked if the State Department has a sense of how many U.S. citizens are in Yemen, State’s acting spokesperson Marie Harf told the press corps yesterday, “We don’t.” She also explained that the State Department has issued 24 Travel Warnings on Yemen in the last 10 years, “so this is not a surprise that the security situation was a poor one.” As of April 6, the United States does not have a third party in Yemen to act on its behalf as protecting power.
Ms. Harf may not know this but we should note that the State Department requires overseas posts to produce estimates of the number of private American citizens in country. When surveyed by the GAO in 2007, more than three-quarters of posts said their last estimate was, at best, only somewhat accurate. State officials also told the GAO that these estimates were best guesses and not based on a particular methodology.
The annual State Department report of potential evacuees from each post overseas is called the F-77. In the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon evacuation of over 15,000 Americans, a State official told the GAO that State was in the process of updating the instructions for producing F-77 reports to improve the preparation of estimates of American citizens at post. If an estimate is not available, does that mean Embassy Sana’a did not have an updated F-77 prior to its suspension of operation in February 2015? Or does that mean, the challenges identified in 2008 for estimating U.S. citizens at post continue to this day: fluctuation of citizen population, non-registration, dual nationals? Or — does it simply mean that the State Department is not willing to make public its estimate of potential evacuees from Yemen?
The State Department suspended embassy operations at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen and American staff were relocated out of the country on February 11, 2015. This followed the previously announced suspension of all consular services on February 8 (see State Dept Suspends US Embassy Yemen Operations, Relocates Staff Until Further Notice). There was no USG-sponsored evacuation for U.S. citizens residing in the country. At that time, and many times previously, the State Department urged U.S. citizens to defer travel to Yemen and those U.S. citizens living in Yemen to depart the country (see here, here, here, here, and here).
On April 3, the State Department issued an updated Travel Warning for Yemen that says in part:
The level of instability and ongoing threats in Yemen remain severe. There are no plans for a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation of U.S. citizens at this time. We encourage all U.S. citizens to shelter in a secure location until they are able to depart safely. U.S. citizens wishing to depart should do so via commercial transportation options when they become available.
Yemen is unsafe for US soldiers, spies, diplomats, but “US citizens are encouraged to shelter in place.” http://t.co/ORb6dhH5Kx
Today, April, 6, the US Embassy Sana’a issued an Emergency Message advising U.S. citizens in Yemen that the Indian Government has offered to evacuate U.S. citizens from Yemen to Djibouti:
The Indian government has offered to assist U.S. citizens who want to depart Yemen for Djibouti. This potentially includes flights out of Sana’a and ships from Aden. U.S. citizens wishing to take advantage of this opportunity should contact First Secretary Raj Kopal at the Indian Embassy in Sana’a at 00967 734 000 657; you may be required to present a valid U.S. passport for boarding. The next flights from Sana’a are scheduled to depart early on April 7. The Department of State cautions that U.S. citizens should consider carefully the risks of traveling to or within Sana’a and Aden in order to board evacuation transport given security conditions in both cities.
On February 11, 2015, due to the deteriorating security situation in Sanaa, the Department of State suspended embassy operations and U.S. Embassy Sanaa American staff were relocated out of the country. All consular services, routine and emergency, continue to be suspended until further notice. The Department notified the public of this move, and its impact on consular services, and urged U.S. citizens in Yemen to depart while commercial transportation was available.
The level of instability and ongoing threats in Yemen remain extremely concerning. There are no plans for a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation of U.S. citizens at this time. If you wish to depart Yemen, you should stay alert for other opportunities to leave the country. U.S. citizens who are able to depart Yemen for another country and are in need of emergency assistance upon arrival may contact a U.S. embassy or consulate in that country.
U.S. Embassy Djibouti is a small post with a low consular workload. At least, until 2010, the consular section there consisted of one entry-level officer (who occupied an FS-03 position) assisted by three local employees (source-pdf).
We don’t know what is the current US citizen population in Yemen. A State/OIG report from June 2010 estimated that the U.S.-Yemeni community there numbered at least 55,000. The report also noted that the serious threat of terrorism in Yemen has put “Sanaa’s visa and passport services in the homeland security cross-hairs.”
We have reached out to Consular Affairs but have not heard anything back.
The U.S Embassy has received information of possible terrorist threats to locations where Westerners, including U.S. citizens, congregate in Kampala, and that an attack may take place soon. Out of an abundance of caution, the U.S. Mission has cancelled some non-essential events scheduled at local hotels in the coming days. U.S. citizens staying or visiting hotels should expect increased security sweeps and delays when entering or exiting hotel areas.