When countries closed their borders in a bid to limit the spread of COVID-19, thousands of EU citizens remained stranded abroad. The EU’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre addressed their call for help, organising support from across Europe. Spain responded by flying 1,100 of them back home.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit worldwide, thousands of EU citizens remained stranded far from home as countries shut down their borders and airlines grounded their planes.
Spain managed to bring 1,100 EU citizens home with the support of the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) in Brussels, which coordinates the delivery of assistance from 27 EU countries and 6 other participating states as part of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.
The ERCC finds support for countries affected by crises such as medical emergencies and natural hazards. In this case, Spain’s support was crucial for citizens from several different EU countries.
“We never had such a huge repatriation operation,” says EU Civil Protection officer Alfonso Lozano Basanta.
“Every day we were receiving various requests for assistance, which created a challenge for us to respond to in time. In my professional experience, I have never faced such high numbers of requests in response to a single crisis.”
Throughout the emergency, Lozano worked closely with Bibiana Andujar, head of civil protection operations for the Spanish government.
An unprecedented effort
“This was my first experience of this kind,” Andujar says.
As a Spanish citizen, Andujar recalls that, at the beginning of the pandemic, Spain received 173,000 FFP2 masks from the EU’s rescEU stockpiles hosted by Romania and Denmark.
She was now happy to be in a position to help others.
“I was just excited to be able to bring those people’s lives back to normal,” she says.
A Spanish airline provided 35 flights to 24 countries in response to requests received from Spanish embassies and consulates worldwide, with the ERCC funding 75% of the costs of the operation.
Thanks to what Andujar called ‘a very remarkable gesture of solidarity’ by the airline, Spanish citizens and passengers from other EU countries were brought back home, both during the first months of the pandemic in 2020 and during the last wave, caused by the Omicron variant.
Some passengers had to be picked up from remote areas, such as small islands in the Philippines, and flown to main hubs where they could board a repatriation flight.
Adapting and changing
To make things more complicated, the pandemic was hitting hard back in Europe. Colleagues of Lozano and Andujar kept falling sick and restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus forced them to work from home with reduced staff.
“Nobody was prepared for that,” Lozano says. “But we were able to respond, one step at a time.”
According to him, the unprecedented effort made to repatriate EU citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic would have been unimaginable without the support of the EU.
“In such a situation, where everybody is affected, creating the space to facilitate and coordinate efforts, to sit at the same table and discuss, was already a huge achievement,” says Lozano.
“Without that, it would have been impossible to respond.”
While a global crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic took everyone by surprise, the ERCC and countries involved in the EU Civil Protection Mechanism have now developed knowledge and expertise they will be able to use in the future.
“We were able to adapt and change. That’s how we managed to respond to a crisis such as a pandemic,” he says.
“If we look at where we are now, we have changed. We are different and our work is well known.”