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21st May 2022

No EU evacuation plan for Ukraine local staff

  • EU foreign service chief Josep Borrell visited Ukraine in January (Photo: consilium.eu)
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Local staff at the EU embassy in Kyiv were not included in recent evacuation plans, posing wider questions on duty of care in the wake of last year's chaotic Western pull-out from Afghanistan.

EU diplomats in Kyiv were circulated plans in early December about what to do if worse came to worst.

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Such plans normally detail where they should gather in the event of an emergency and which member states' embassies in the Ukrainian city would get them and their families onto flights back home, EU sources said.

They also give practical advice, for instance: what to take in your car when driving to safety and to keep your petrol tank full.

The plans went round after Russia built up an invasion force on Ukraine's borders — but they also came against the background of the Western evacuation of Kabul in August last year, when international personnel fled in disarray while local people mobbed the airport in scenes televised worldwide.

In Kyiv, all the EU diplomats have stayed in place for now in a show of solidarity with Ukraine.

But in any case, the 54 local staff at the EU embassy, some of whom have worked there for more than 20 years, did not get the evacuation memo, three sources told EUobserver.

Local staff contracts do not oblige the EU foreign service to get them out.

And they do not know where to relocate to in Ukraine if they had to leave Kyiv or what would happen to their incomes if the EU fled.

Ukrainian colleagues were being included in security briefings at staff meetings and there was, in general, good morale at the EU embassy, sources said.

"All our staff ... are being regularly informed about contingency planning," an EU foreign service spokesman in Brussels also told EUobserver.

But the Kyiv "contingency" briefings gave few details. "They said nothing, except: 'If the situation changes, we'll let you know what to do'," an EU contact said.

And the way the foreign service has handled the security arrangements left some local staff feeling "second-class" and "unhappy", the contact said.

Few in the EU foreign service think a Russian attack in east Ukraine is imminent and even fewer that Russia might capture Kyiv.

Nobody imagines that Russian forces would behave like the Taliban if they did.

But a nightmare scenario could see Russia attack Ukraine from Belarus in the north as well as from the east, blocking people in Kyiv from escaping to Europe by car or train.

And regime change in Ukraine could also lead to reprisals against Western "collaborators", one EU country's diplomat warned.

"When [Viktor] Yanukovych [a pro-Russian former president] took power in 2010, the SBU [Ukraine's domestic intelligence service] became an instrument of repression almost overnight and this could easily happen once again," the European diplomat, who was in Kyiv in 2010, said.

Kabul lesson

The dramatic fall of Kabul saw Europe scramble together a unique deal to evacuate local people linked to the EU embassy and its police-training mission in Afghanistan.

The EU was giving shelter not just to local colleagues and their families, but also suppliers of EU facilities, in an ongoing operation.

And it was even evacuating "vulnerable officials or other professionals, active in the political or security sectors of Afghanistan, such as judges, prosecutors, police officers, military personnel and journalists, who were trained under, or who have been involved in the implementation of Union policies," a recent EU memo on the project, seen by EUobserver, said.

The evacuation covered over 1,000 people and the cost of getting them to safety was modest, the memo showed.

"The cost of the evacuation via Qatar is estimated at €2,500 per person. This includes €1,050 for a flight from Kabul to Doha, €1,050 for a flight from Doha to an EU member state, €120 for PCR tests, €150 for accommodation in transit, €100 for food in transit, and €30 for transport to the airport," it said, for instance.

Duty of care

Meanwhile, the lack of an evacuation plan for local staff in Ukraine also covered people at a European Union Advisory Mission on security-sector reform in Kyiv and in Mariupol in east Ukraine.

And basic evacuation policy was the same in all EU missions around the world.

For some EU politicians, all that posed questions on whether the EU foreign service could do better in its duty of care.

"The EU as an employer or contracting authority has a responsibility toward local staff," Hannah Neumann, a German green MEP, said.

"As we have security and evacuation plans for international staff, we also need to be clear on how we protect and support our local employees," she added.

"I'd like to know if we are prepared to help vulnerable local staff in Mali if the EU missions there had to close," Neumann also said, amid rising tensions in the West African country.

"What happened in Afghanistan was a very specific situation," the EU foreign service said.

"However, internal reflection was launched in its aftermath to see what might be the lessons learnt," its spokesman added.

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