Niger evacuation: behind the scenes at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
After the coup on 26 July, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs worked to ensure that 20 Dutch nationals were able to leave Niger on several French flights and one Spanish flight.
Staff worked day and night on this operation. For security reasons, a lot of details had to remain secret. Now that the evacuation has been completed, we can show you what goes on at the ministry during a crisis. This article looks at the work of colleagues in The Hague, Niamey and Paris.
The Hague: act quickly, be flexible and assess critically
Emma Linders is a consular crisis coordinator at the Consular Affairs and Visa Policy Department (DCV). Based in The Hague, she was closely involved in the evacuation. It began with the team receiving early intelligence about the worsening security situation in Niger. ‘Within the ministry, we continuously monitor security situations in counties around the world. If there are significant indications that something is afoot in a particular country, which we mostly receive from our embassy there, then we immediately look at what is happening and what that means for Dutch nationals in the region,’ says Emma.
‘First, it’s important for us to know how many Dutch nationals are in the country. We also update the travel advice or send out a message via our information service. Call teams comprising experienced colleagues then try to establish contact with Dutch nationals who we know are in the region. We ask them if they are safe and what their current situation is.’ It’s vital to inform Dutch nationals clearly and honestly about what the ministry can do for them. ‘In countries where the travel advice is red, which is the case for Niger now, the general situation is dangerous. That means we can’t always immediately take action on the ground.’
We receive a lot of information and we need to assess it critically
For colleagues from DCV, working during a crisis means working around the clock. ‘During a crisis, there’s no such thing as a typical work day,’ says Emma. ‘We’re constantly looking at the situation, seeing how things are with the Dutch nationals in the region and looking at what we can do to help them. One development is quickly followed by another, so we need to be flexible and act quickly.’
For colleagues in The Hague, well-organised crisis meetings help with this. ‘We receive a lot of information and we need to assess it critically. At these meetings we establish the true picture of the situation and then get to work on the actions we’ve agreed on. That helps keep things calm and clear.’
During the crisis in Niger, Emma was once again impressed by her colleagues’ hard work. ‘Everyone is very committed and it’s a real example of teamwork. Colleagues were talking directly to people who were in very difficult circumstances, for instance. Dutch nationals in need often really value receiving information from professionals who are trying to be there for them.’
Niamey: ambassador Paul Tholen on evacuating Dutch nationals from Niger
On 26 July, a military coup took place in Niger. ‘Strangely enough, the streets of Niamey were very quiet on the day of the coup,’ says ambassador Paul Tholen. ‘Only the next day, when the demonstrations began, did the mood change and things get more serious. In the meantime, we at the embassy had been in regular contact with Dutch nationals in Niger and with international partners.’
Contact with Dutch nationals
‘Our highest priority was knowing which Dutch nationals were in the country, where they were and whether they were safe.’ Our embassy was in direct contact with these Dutch nationals. We knew a lot of them already and would regularly call them to ask where they were and how things were going. They also called us if they had questions or concerns.’
Embassy during the crisis
‘Although no two crises are the same, we are prepared for situations like this,’ Paul explains. ‘That’s one of our tasks as an embassy. If we need to evacuate people, we always look for the best and safest options. And here in Niger it was clear that the French would play an important role in that regard.’
One of our tasks as an embassy is to be prepared for situations like this.
Evacuation from Niger
Dutch nationals who had said they wanted to be evacuated if possible were told to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. On 2 August the embassy instructed them to come to the airport. ‘The mood at the airport was good. It was calm and French officials were handing out water. Our Dutch operational manager stayed there until everyone was on the plane.’ But some patience was required, says Paul. ‘The Dutch nationals needed to be at the airport by 6 am to wait for a plane. Some were only able to leave in the evening, making for a few long days for everyone – both the evacuees and the embassy staff.’
On 4 August another Dutch national left Niger. They were able to leave on a Spanish evacuation flight. ‘We are extremely grateful to our French and Spanish counterparts. But also to the European Union delegation. They all played a crucial role in planning the evacuation and sharing knowledge to make sure it was a success. It was a great example of European cooperation!’
Paul is staying in Niger in order to monitor the political and security situation on the ground and help Dutch nationals who were unwilling or unable to leave. His staying also ensures diplomatic channels for dialogue with Niger are kept open.
Paris: Ambassador Jan Versteeg on meeting evacuated Dutch nationals at the airport
On 2 August, 19 Dutch nationals left Niger on flights operated by France. Ambassador Jan Versteeg joined other staff from the Dutch embassy in Paris as they stood by night and day to meet the evacuees. But the embassy’s work had already begun days earlier.
Jan Versteeg speaks with evacuated Dutch citizens.
Before the departure from Niger
‘We got a call from The Hague on Sunday 30 July,’ says Jan. ‘It was clear that the situation in Niger was becoming increasingly dangerous following the coup. That’s when we sprang into action. We immediately made contact with the crisis centre in Paris. We wanted to see how the French were responding to the situation and what preparations they were making for a possible organised departure.’ The evacuation started two days later.
The situation required enormous flexibility from the Dutch embassy in France. ‘Dutch nationals could arrive on any of the planes coming in from Niger, and initially we didn’t even know what city they would land in. So we prepared for all kinds of scenarios and booked a variety of train tickets.’ On 2 August it became clear that the first Dutch nationals were in the air and headed for Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport.
Meeting Dutch nationals at the airport
‘Our embassy team put on our orange vests and stood by at the airport to meet the Dutch nationals. At a time like that, you do what you can. And mainly you just want everyone to feel taken care of. Because it’s quite an intense experience for the evacuees: within the space of a few days, your entire life is upended. We gave Dutch nationals information about onward travel and accommodation and we also helped them with little things like charging their phones. And we took care of staff from the embassy in Niamey.’
It's quite an intense experience: within the space of a few days, your entire life is upended.
A long day and night
It was a long day followed by a long night. ‘The second plane didn’t arrive until about 2 am. Staff from the embassy in Niamey were also on this one. It was nice to see that they had had friendly contact with the other Dutch nationals on the flight, and they waited until everyone came through customs.’ Jan has a lot of appreciation for the French emergency personnel on the scene. ‘Airport police, the French Red Cross and NGOs – they were all there to help the evacuees. And they were all smiling, which was fantastic to see.’
‘There was no panic among the Dutch nationals, no fear in their eyes. They were simply tired travellers. And most were optimistic. They felt they had been wise to leave Niger and they were grateful for the help they received. But some had also had to leave family or friends behind. That’s always so worrying. Even so, they were glad to be on their way to the Netherlands.’