In Harm's Way: Evacuating Employees from the Middle East

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The unrest occurring throughout the Middle East transformed business centers into virtual war zones. A company can do nothing to quell a revolution, but when the going gets tough, it's time for employees to get going--out of the country. For times like these, companies need a plan to evacuate workers before the violence ever begins.

No one predicted the revolutions that have erupted throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa. The full extent of the social and political transformations will only become evident in the years--and decades--to come, but the immediate fallout for foreign nationals in these countries was obvious: stable cities became danger zones.

In January, widespread protests in Egypt, for example, forced many companies, universities and nonprofits with personnel in Cairo to determine if the situation had become too treacherous for their workers. The magnitude of the unrest even surprised Charlie LeBlanc, who, as president of security evacuation provider ASI Group, makes his living by staying abreast of breaking developments across the globe. "If anyone says they saw this coming, they're lying," said LeBlanc.

Having traveled to Egypt many times, he knew there were many foreign nationals living and working there who would need assistance when the riots broke out. He did not know there were close to 80,000 expats, however. And he never imagined there would be an event so widespread that so many would need his company's advice at once. "It seemed like all 80,000 were calling at the same time," said LeBlanc. He expects that this will be the largest event of this type that he will ever come across. "We can't envision a larger-scope scenario," said LeBlanc. "You know, short of Armageddon."

LeBlanc's company is who you want to call if you are trapped in such a situation. Through a 2008 acquisition, his ASI Group, which was founded in 1989 as Air Security International, became part of MEDEX, a travel assistance and international medical insurance provider that works with insurers including Travelers and Chubb.

Immediately following the unrest in Egypt, the ASI team had some 30 corporate clients seeking consultation on how to keep their employees safe. All told, the company directly chartered more than 800 people out of Egypt in short order.

There were many others who wanted advice but wound up on State Department flights. ASI provided them with information on where they needed to go and how to sign up to get evacuated, but they made final arrangements on their own. LeBlanc does not know how many cases of indirect assistance his firm was involved in. "We stopped even counting," he said.

For most people, all they wanted was a way out of the country. "When you're talking to these folks," said LeBlanc, "they're frustrated, they're upset, they're discouraged and some of them ... are worried that they're not going to be able to get off the ground."

But the decision on when to leave ultimately comes down to organizational and personal risk appetite. Those in the oil and gas industry, for instance, may have a vested interest in toughing it out longer then, say, an agricultural researcher for a nonprofit. And while most companies will adopt a blanket determination on when to pull out, the decision may be more personal in other cases. "On the scholastic side, it gets down to the individual," said LeBlanc. "We had a lot of students in Egypt that didn't want to leave. They felt safe. They're young. We've all been there where we feel...that this is literally history in the making and we don't want to leave."

While some choose to live more dangerously, Dominick Zenzola, vice president and travel accident expert at Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, recommends that all organizations have insurance coverage that includes access to a travel assistance provider. When employee lives are at stake, you would rather have something you don't need than need something you don't have. …

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