Bringing our citizens home

The series of uprisings in the Middle East has impacted the lives and security of Indians living in the region. Over 18,000 Indian expatriates have been evacuated by the Government of India via government-owned and private aircraft, military transporters and passenger ferries.

India is no stranger to security uncertainties in the Middle East. At the time of the first Gulf War, India had about 180,000 citizens living in Kuwait and 20,000 in Iraq. Over the course of the war, India dispatched ferries to Dubai and chartered Air India flights to Amman, Jordan to evacuate citizens from the region. Direct evacuation from Kuwait was impossible because of air and sea blockades by the US-led coalition, a point that drew repeated protests from Inder Kumar Gujral, then foreign minister. India incurred costs exceeding $1 billion, having evacuated over 100,000 citizens via 500 flights from Amman to Mumbai. Again, in 2006, when conflict broke out between Israel and Hizbullah in South Lebanon, India dispatched four warships of Task Force 54 (INS Mumbai, INS Brahmaputra, INS Betwa and INS Shakti) to rescue not only the 2,000 Indian citizens but also Sri Lankans and Nepalis, as part of Operation Sukoon.

In January 2011, as news of the uprising in Egypt broke out, a control room in Cairo and a “Situation Room” in New Delhi were established to monitor the situation and assist citizens in need. At the time of the uprising, 3,600 Indians lived in Egypt. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) first issued an advisory against non-essential travel to Egypt, while treading cautiously on statements about Hosni Mubarak’s regime. India operated two Air India flights via Dubai and Jeddah, through which around 500 passengers were evacuated. In addition, MEA appealed to private airlines to contribute to the effort of evacuating citizens from the Egypt. IndiGo operated flights to Cairo to aid in the effort.

However, the bulk of India’s evacuation efforts were concentrated on Libya, where over 18,000 Indian citizens lived and worked. As anti-Gaddafi forces gained momentum in Benghazi, the MEA launched Operation Safe Homecoming on February 28, its largest evacuation exercise since the Gulf War. The initial focus of New Delhi’s efforts was Scotia Prince, a passenger ferry with a capacity of 1,200, chartered to evacuate its citizens from Benghazi and Eastern Libya to Alexandria, Egypt. From Alexandria, four special flights (including one Indian Air Force IL-76 transporter) operated to fly evacuees back to India. The Indian government also chartered MV Red Star One, which evacuated citizens to Malta, from where they were flown back to India via flights operated by Kingfisher and Jet Airways.

Air evacuations from Libya proved challenging, as Tripoli International Airport was besieged by rioting mobs, and the runway at the Benghazi airport was destroyed. Once permission for air evacuation was obtained from the Libyan government on March 1st, India operated Air India flights—a Boeing 747 and an Airbus 320—daily to evacuate citizens from Tripoli. By March 3rd, India had evacuated about a third of its citizens.

For Indians crossing over from border towns, posts were set up in Salloum, Egypt, and Tunisia to provide necessary travel documentation. Embassy officials transported border evacuees to Cairo and Djerba (Tunisia), respectively, from where they were flown to India via flights operated by GulfAir and FlyDubai. A chartered flight was also flown from the coastal town of Sirte to Larnaca (Cyprus) and Malta, where evacuees (which included about 150 Indians and 9 Bangladeshis) were received by Indian embassy staff and booked on flights back to India. Separately, some private companies evacuated their employees in batches via Emirates Airlines flights. A total of 47 sorties were flown by chartered flights, evacuating all citizens desiring to leave Libya.

Image: G23 Armstrong











M Manimekalai, India’s ambassador to Libya, played a pivotal role in obtaining permission from the Libyan authorities for air evacuation.

New Delhi not only evacuated its own citizens, but also assisted its neighbours in the effort.

As evacuation efforts intensified, ministry officials, including Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and staff from the Public Diplomacy Division updated citizens using the social networking website, Twitter, in addition to regular updates on the official website. The ministry’s online presence allowed the government to provide frequent updates on the evacuation effort and address reports of citizens being made to pay for their evacuation.

The episode should trigger a greater analysis and strategic planning for such contingencies. For instance, the decision to deploy INS Mysore and INS Jalashwa to aid in the evacuation efforts needs further review. Both vessels arrived in Libya on March 10th, by which time about 80 percent of India’s evacuation was complete. It also appears that their designated role was not to evacuate citizens to India, but to transport them from Libya to neighbouring Malta, from where they were to be evacuated via chartered flights to Mumbai and Delhi.

What stands out though is the need for India to enhance its heavy lift and transport capabilities, which can improve efficiencies during evacuation. One IL-76 transporter was deployed to assist with the evacuation efforts and one was placed on standby. While some reports indicated that C-130Js were joining the exercise, they were not actually deployed. In addition to the ability to coordinate with and use private aircraft and ships, the Indian armed forces need more of their own resources.

The United States and China were able to obtain permission for direct air evacuation from Libya via military transporters, but India was forced to ferry evacuees to Malta instead. Indian diplomats, military personnel and their civilian counterparts accomplished a major logistics successfully, and deserve commendation. There remain, however, important lessons for India to learn from these recent evacuation exercises, not least in a region that could see more instability in the days and months ahead.

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