Background Briefing on Consular Services in Djibouti

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Nairobi, Kenya
May 5, 2015

MODERATOR: Hi, everyone. So, for those of you who don't know, [Senior State Department Official] is going to talk to you a little bit about particularly the stop tomorrow. I know we talked a lot in the briefings about Djibouti and what has been going on with American citizens coming from Yemen, but I think [Senior State Department Official] is going to give some more granularity of some of what we are doing, and some of the numbers, and some of what you will see tomorrow, in terms of the assistance we are providing. And then [Senior State Department Official] is happy to answer any questions.

And it is all on background, as a Senior State Department Official. I don't think anything needs to be embargoed for any of these (inaudible) previous stories you write for Djibouti, if you write them. I don't think any of this needs to be embargoed. Yeah. Okay.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, good morning. I will just describe sort of the situation as I see it. And I am certainly happy to be interrupted by questions, if you want, or you can wait.

I think, as you all have been told a number of times, we had been advising Americans for a while that it would be best to leave Yemen. And, based on what I am seeing of the Americans and their family members who are leaving now, my sense is that most of -- or a very large percentage of -- the Americans in Yemen who could easily and without encumbrances depart, did. We are not seeing a lot of people who are, say, American citizens who were in Yemen in connection with their jobs, but without family members there, or who were there perhaps as missionaries, as reporters, as -- but, in other words, Americans who were -- don't have a long-term connection to Yemen, by and large, I think had left, especially after the embassy closed in February, which is a very clear signal to anybody that we consider it to be very dangerous to be there. Plus, it means that we lose our ability to assist people on the ground inside the country.

So what we are seeing now are American citizens who are in Yemen and are there as members of extended families. Sometimes the American citizen in the family may actually be in the United States. For example, there are a lot of men who are living in the United States. The largest communities are in Michigan, California, and New York. And in many cases, their families remain in Yemen. And so they visit the family regularly, it is a real family, but the husband is living and working in the States, and sending money home. And in many of those cases, the wife is not an American citizen. The children, however, may be American citizens, probably have a claim to American citizenship, and that may or may not have ever been determined. If the family had never come to the embassy to register the birth of the child, then what we are looking at is a child who may have a claim to U.S. citizenship, but we don't know for sure.

So, what we are seeing of Americans now who are coming out of Yemen -- and there are over 500 who have -- American citizens who have come through Djibouti, and close to an equivalent number of family members, I would say, and certainly hundreds of family members also traveling with them. And they come, of course, in different permutations of who is in the family, how many are American or not American, how many are already registered with us as people who are intending to immigrate to the United States, and some who are not.

But of the Americans who have left Yemen -- sorry, so I should say some come through Djibouti and some have departed through other countries. Some have left on flights, for example, that were organized by the IOM, the International Organization for Migration, or they have gone out as passengers on flights organized by other countries. And so there are more than 200 we know. We don't know about all of them. People don't necessarily report in to us. Certainly, if they don't need our help, they wouldn't necessarily check in with us. And sometimes, if they have been in touch to say they need our help, they don't then follow up later to say, "I am now squared away, and I don't need your help any more." So it is -- we try to follow up, but it is always a challenge to know who is out there, and what sort of help they need from us.

QUESTION: Can I stop you just for a quick clarification?


QUESTION: You said over 500 American citizens have come from Djibouti. Then you said some departed through Djibouti and some through other countries. So is 500 Djibouti and other countries, or is the 500 --



SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: More than -- yeah, just for Djibouti. That has been the easiest place for people to get to.

So -- and one of the reasons for that is -- I really think -- I would love to see Djibouti get a lot of credit for the way they have responded to this crisis, because what the government of Djibouti has said to the people of Yemen is, "If you need safe haven, you can come here." And they haven't put up any barriers to that at all. Other countries have imposed visa requirements on Yemeni citizens that didn't exist before this crisis.

For example, it used to be that Yemenis could travel to Egypt without a visa; now they need a visa in order to go. So that makes it that much harder for people who are trying to leave to figure out what is the best route for us, what is the best plan for us, depending on where they might have family members or friends that they can stay with, or a way to get someplace or so forth. So, it is really to the credit of Djibouti, which is not a big or a rich place, that they have opened themselves up to the possibility of a lot of people coming. And a lot of people have come, including some American citizens and their family members.

So, the deal is, if you are an American citizen, you can always come to the United States. And if you, for example, arrive in Djibouti and you don't have anything -- no money, no nothing -- we can help you. We would help by -- now, this isn't just Djibouti, this is anywhere that you arrive -- but we would help by helping you to get in touch with family members in the States or elsewhere who might be able to send the money you need to be able to travel on. If you don't have any resources like that, or you can't reach them, or they say no, then we will provide a loan to an American citizen to travel directly back to the United States. And that does come with some requirements. One is you are supposed to pay the loan back. And second, we will limit the passport for direct travel back to the States, and then that is it, and you won't be able to get another passport until you have paid the loan back. So that is not in any sense unique to this crisis. That is the way we handle the repatriation of American citizens who can't get home on their own.

The challenge with this group has been that -- I mean so there are lots of Americans who have left Yemen and traveled on to the United States, and we don't necessarily know how many, because if they didn't need our help, they wouldn't necessarily get in touch with us. They are just another American citizen traveling home.

If -- in the case of these -- the majority of the folks that we are dealing with, they are traveling with family members. And the family members can fall into a variety of categories. For example, they can be minor children, in some cases, who are documented as American citizens, but are living in Yemen with family members who are all Yemeni. So maybe you have two or three children, for example, living with their mother and with other perhaps extended family, and the American citizen father is in the United States. And so, the mother and children might come out -- we have seen a number of cases like that. And in some of those cases, the American citizen in the States has flown out to Djibouti or to Cairo, or wherever they are, to meet the family and assist them in doing whatever that family needs in order to continue on to the States.

If the children are documented as American citizens, then they are also kind of good to go. They are ready to travel to the States. But they normally are going to need an adult to travel with them. Sometimes, as I say, the -- an American citizen parent might be traveling with them, and those folks have gone on to the States. Sometimes they want to pause wherever they are, and get an immigrant visa for the wife, let's say. And that can move faster or slower, depending on things like had a petition already been filed for that wife, was the family already in the process of getting an immigrant visa for the wife, in which case we can kind of pick up with the -- wherever the case is, and figure out what they need to complete the case, complete it and allow her to travel on. And that is exactly what is going on in Djibouti. That is what you will see.

Because that is where so many people have gone, we sent a number of Foreign Service officers and also local employed staff from other embassies in the region, and some embassies that are pretty far flung. I know there is at least one locally employed staff member who came from Canada, because in Canada she works on immigrant visa cases and she speaks Arabic, and she was available to travel. And so she is also a member of the team that is out there in Djibouti, assisting people.

If there are family members for whom no process had ever been started, but it looks like they probably would be eligible for an immigrant visa -- and these would be spouses, minor children, and parents of American citizens -- those are the people that can get an immigrant visa as soon as we have finished the process, they don't have to wait for any kind of numerical limit, or anything of that sort -- then the staff in Djibouti or in Egypt or in Jeddah, or wherever these folks have arrived -- Addis is another place that some have gone -- the consular team in that embassy will begin the process with the family of doing whatever needs to be done to process an immigrant visa for the immediate family members in the group.

There are inevitably, then, some members of some family groups that don't qualify for a visa. For example, you could have a group where it is the Yemeni wife and a few children and maybe her mother is with them. Well, the -- that mother wouldn't qualify for an immediate relative immigrant visa. The American citizen's mother would, but his wife's mother wouldn't. So now we have the problem of the family -- either they are going to be stuck, or we need to try to figure out a way to assist them. And what we would probably do in a case like that is to talk to the folks who do parole over at DHS, or see if we can get them listed as a refugee, but see if we can find a category that a person like that might be able to travel to the United States under if they don't qualify for an immigrant visa.

But the other factor that I think we are definitely seeing is that there are a lot of families that are remaining in Yemen because of various family considerations. For example -- this is totally hypothetical, but I'm just -- these are the types of cases that we are either seeing or hearing about -- the Yemeni wife might have her parents there, and maybe they don't want to travel, they are not able to travel, they are not in good health. Other family members might not be able to travel. The wife herself might not be able to travel. Perhaps she is expecting another child. So there are, I think, a lot of American citizens or close family members that are in Yemen and are not planning to travel right now, but that doesn't mean they wouldn't like to travel when the circumstances are right, either when it is easier to depart -- commercial flights have started out of Yemen, and now elderly people are willing to take that flight -- or they are waiting for the -- just it to be safer, to travel within the country and get to an airport or a seaport that they could leave from.

So, in general, I think that part of what has made the situation in Yemen challenging has been not so much helping American citizens leave, as assisting American citizens and family members to sort out their situations and figure out what they need to do. We are working as fast as we can on these cases. We are trying to get the straight-forward cases approved and on their way as quickly as possible. But there are issues -- there always are -- concerning fraud. It is challenging in a country like Yemen, because not everybody has the kind of paperwork that you would have if you were living in the United States, in terms of birth records, marriage records, other sorts of things. So -- and those are all critical elements of what you need to complete the process for an immigrant visa.

If someone is petitioning to bring in his wife, he needs to be able to show that she is his wife. And so, we recognize the challenges that people are dealing with, and we are trying to work with them to find ways to meet the requirements. But it is a legal process that we have to find ways to work through with folks.

MODERATOR: So I think -- do you want to go to questions now? I think that is a good (inaudible) more detail than I have been able to do in the briefings, which I appreciate. So we want to go to some questions. Ros?

QUESTION: Yeah. Do you think that the number of people -- and by my rough addition, we are talking about 1,000 people, citizens and their closest relatives, plus another 200 who may have left, at least --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, those are 200 that we know --

QUESTION: Yeah, 200 that we know.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- left, and 200-plus --

QUESTION: So at least 1,200 people that the U.S. Government is aware of. Is that number pretty steady? Are you expecting another uptick of U.S. citizens and relatives coming to Djibouti to ask for assistance in finding safe haven somewhere?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: What we are seeing so far is, in terms -- and the kinds of metrics or gauges that we can look at include people arriving, and the way they arrive tends to be by dhow, which is the big wooden boats. It is quite unpredictable how many people might come in on any given day. There seems to be roughly a dhow a day but there is no schedule for that. And a lot of the -- it is not a commercial, planned sort of thing, and it is not an officially organized thing at the moment, either. For a while, the government of Djibouti was organizing boats to try to help their own citizens get across, and they were letting anybody else who wanted to board also board. Right now it is more of a private, ad hoc thing.

So, we are seeing numbers of Americans and their families come in on those boats. We are also -- the other metric that we can look at is the emails that we get and the other contact that we get from people who are requesting assistance in departing or giving us information about family members in Yemen that they would like us to assist.

What we are not seeing is a massive surging rise in those numbers. But they are steady. There definitely are still people who are departing, there are still people who are interested in departing. And we know that there is just no question that there are also people who would be interested in departing but they haven't gotten in touch with us. Maybe they live in a place where they don't have Internet access.

I think that we have done a very good job of getting the word out about how to reach us, both through the communities in the United States who are, of course, in touch with family members, and also through -- we have information up on the Embassy Sana'a website -- even though the embassy is closed, there is still a website -- their Facebook also, their Facebook page has information out. People who have registered with us are steadily receiving information about what we know of the situation, what we hear about opportunities to depart. People who have gotten in touch with us, not through our registration program, but through the email address that we put out. We are also remaining in touch with them to try to gauge, "Are you still there? Are you planning to leave? What is your situation?" So -- sorry.

MODERATOR: No, I am sorry, I didn't mean to -- one thing for tomorrow is -- we didn't put the schedule out yet, but the Secretary will be meeting with some American citizens who are there getting consular services, that have left Yemen. So --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So -- and there would -- there will be an opportunity to talk to them, too, and just to hear what their stories are, what their experiences have been.

I also definitely want to give a major shout out for our colleagues who are at the U.S. embassy in Djibouti, because what they have done -- and this is a small post, which suddenly has found itself in the middle of a very major operation, but they have had a team from the embassy down to meet every flight in the cases where there were flights coming in, and every boat that has come in to the port, in order to identify arriving U.S. citizens and family members.

And so, what they have done is -- as people are coming in, of course, they are being kind of processed into the country by Djiboutian officials. So our folks are there, first of all, to try to figure out who here is an American citizen, or traveling with one. They are providing water and food and infant supplies and things so that people have basic things to rely on while they are waiting to be processed, admitted to the country.

If -- whenever possible, they also try to make sure that there is some shady place where people can be while they are waiting. And they are providing a means for the arriving citizens to call home to be able to get in touch with family members back in the States, or wherever they are, to let them know where they are, what the status is. And they are providing them with information about what our process is at the embassy for assisting them. And, again, that depends on what your situation is. If you are an American who wants to just keep going then we will help you keep going. If your passport is expired we can issue a new passport. If you need emergency assistance we can give you that loan.

Otherwise, we would be talking to them about what the process would be for establishing the citizenship of minor children whose father of record is an American citizen and we need to determine that that is the father and that the transmission of citizenship therefore, has occurred. And that means, for some of these kids, DNA tests. And that means, of course, to make the link you have to have the DNA match between the father and the child.

QUESTION: And that is for children who haven't been registered as citizens --


QUESTION: -- when they were born. Okay.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. But it is, in fact -- I mean it is true in that region -- certainly in Yemen -- that we often do a DNA match for the children when the families bring them in to register them. And that -- the reason for that is that it is not uncommon for the sponsoring parent to have a child in the mix that he loves like a son, but who is actually a nephew.

QUESTION: Or loves like a slave.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, no. I mean there is no evil players here, I don't think. These -- this is a situation --

QUESTION: Well, maybe not in this case, but --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. But, I mean, in the case of the people who are trying to register children who aren't actually theirs, it is usually nephews, nieces, family members. And it is what you do for your brother's kids if you are the American in the family who could do that. But, as a result, Yemen is a country where we typically do require. And they have to pay for that.

And so, what we often see, traditionally, when we were doing this in Yemen before the embassy closed, was that people would say, "Oh, and I have four children." And then, when they came in to do the DNA, the swab, they would bring three, and they would say, "Oh, the other one tragically fell down a well."

So, they -- in other countries where you see the same sort of pattern, they will go ahead and swab all the kids, and then we will just say, "Okay, well, these three are good to go, and this one is actually, according to what we have been able to" --

QUESTION: Does it work with adopted children?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, they would be in a completely different process.



QUESTION: Because they are not natural born -- I mean they wouldn't qualify --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You certainly wouldn't be trying to do a DNA match for an adopted child.

QUESTION: Right. Could I just ask one quick one on -- given Yemen is the source of -- some Americans have gone there for, let's say, a scholarship for dubious, anachronistic interpretations of Islam. How are you vetting potential threats to the homeland? Not that I think it is a massive number --


QUESTION: We do know of --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It is definitely a threat. And it is a possibility. So you can -- Americans who are arriving, wherever they arrive -- and they come in in Munich, in Moscow, they -- depending on -- if there is a plane they can get on, they will get on it and go. And for some organizations like IOM, when they have these flights, you can only board if you have a passport, so -- meaning that you can continue to travel on to the States. They won't let you board with your wife that you are going to get an IV for -- immigrant visa. Because IOM's understanding with the countries -- I am not forgetting your question -- IOM's understanding with the questions that they are taking people to is these people won't stay, they will keep going. So IOM doesn't board the kinds of family groups that we are talking about.

In the case of an American citizen who has been in Yemen and we don't -- obviously, we actually don't know why any of them are in Yemen. They are there to see family, they are there for a job, they are there for studies, whatever. Our focus, as they are traveling home, is on assisting them to travel home. So we don't sit them down and give them an interview, and say, "So, what were you doing there, and who were your friends, and who did you live with, and how long were you there," and that kind of thing. Our goal is to confirm that they are U.S. citizens, and to assist them in going on.

There is information about some people in the system. And that typically wouldn't come from people like me, although sometimes you do learn about stuff, you are assisting somebody, and he will be talking about what he was doing or what his brother is doing or something. But there is information that may have been gathered by intel or law enforcement. And so, as American citizens who are -- that we have a concern about arrive in the United States, they may be asked some questions by the DHS folks, the immigration inspectors. But we aren't slowing down the travel of U.S. citizens in order to inquire into what their activities were overseas.

It does become a factor potentially in the case of non-U.S. citizens who are traveling to the United States and are applying for a visa because you ask a lot more questions of a visa applicant than you would of a U.S. citizen.

If for some reason someone like me, someone doing the consular side of the job, knows that somebody has been involved in that kind of thing then we would probably flag it for the immigration inspectors when the people get home so that they would know that -- ask some questions of this person. But we wouldn't -- unless they are in the system as someone who cannot board a flight to the United States, in which case they are not going to fly, they -- we are not --

QUESTION: Standard operating procedure, essentially.


QUESTION: So, two questions. How much have you beefed up your staff by to deal with this crisis? And, number two, can you tell us kind of what state a lot of these people are in when they arrive?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Those are both good questions. So the -- I have to admit I don't have, off the top of my head, but it is, I think, roughly, let's say an additional five officers who are in Djibouti, and approximately that number, maybe a few more, of the locally-engaged staff. And the -- there is a difference in the type of work that those folks do. The officers are doing work that you have to be an American citizen with a commission, a consular commission, to do. And that is things like taking oaths and examining the final file and confirming, yes, this person qualifies for a visa and I am issuing it.

The locally-engaged staff are often fluent in the local language. They are, obviously, able to read the documents that are also in the local language, very quickly. As part of the actual file, all that stuff will get translated. So what is going into the U.S. Government record back in the States will be the original local document and an English translation attached to it. But having the assistance of the locally-engaged staff from other embassies in the region is a huge help. They know how to do this.

QUESTION: And, excuse me, if you have beefed up your staff by five and five, that brings the total staff to approximately what, in Djibouti?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, the -- I think that we only have a couple of consular officers normally working in Djibouti. I will get you those numbers so that you would have it by the time you get there. But it is not a big -- it must be more than two, because they do immigrant visas there, and, of course, they do non-immigrant visas. But it is not a big operation. And that is why, when we left -- when we had to close the embassy in Yemen in February we designated Algiers and Cairo as the embassies that people with pending immigrant cases should plan to go to. And we shifted their casework there, we beefed up staff at those posts, including some people who had worked in Yemen before and were familiar with the documents and the situation and all.

Some people have decided that, having gotten to Djibouti, they will stay there and process their case there, partly because it is a little bit harder than it used to be to go on to Egypt. We would have to get the Egyptians to agree to issue a visa and that would probably depend on our being able to indicate how long we think it is going to take -- how long those people will be in Egypt. How long will they need to stay and pull their case together? And it is hard for us to predict, and we don't want to promise Egypt a period of time that then turns out that people have to stay longer.

So, there are still people who are arriving, say, in Jeddah or in Djibouti or in other places, and then going on somewhere else to complete their processing. And what -- part of what we are doing in response to the crisis is to try to be in very good communication with all these families so they know what their options are and they know why a particular location might work better for them. They may have yet another nationality in the family, too. There might be a family where they are mostly Yemenis but somebody in there has some other passport and there might be a reason why, for that, it is better for them to go to this post, rather than that post to process the visa. So it really depends on the situation of the family and what is best for them.

QUESTION: And then --

MODERATOR: Let's just do one more.

QUESTION: On the state of -- I mean --


QUESTION: Are these people caught in the middle of --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Some of the people who are coming in are in -- they have plenty of money, and they are basically okay, apart from the fact that they have just been forced to leave their homes and move. I mean they are not in a good situation. These are not people who necessarily would have chosen to leave Yemen if not for the war and the trouble there.

But some of them arrive with the funds they need to pay for six plane tickets and fly on. Some of them arrive with much less money. Some of them have very little education, and are not used to filling out forms and are not used to dealing with, "We need the original raised, sealed document" of this or that. And that is another big job that is done, then, by the locally-engaged staff who are working because they can sit down and explain. "Here is how we need to do it." Or they can also be in touch with family members back in the States who may be helping to pull the paperwork together.

QUESTION: And maybe in some cases some have been -- or have rushed to leave and have not been able to find all the documents.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That is possible. I -- but another factor here is that because of the long-running difficulties that we have been dealing with in Yemen, there is a backlog of families that have been waiting to get their visas and go. So I think there are quite a few families in Yemen that have this process underway, had a file going of birth certificates and marriage certificates and various things. So they have the beginnings of what they need and then we work with them to figure out how to obtain what they don't have.

QUESTION: I am sure everyone's case is different. But, generally speaking for the Americans going to Djibouti, what is their -- what is the amount of time that they spend there before they travel on to the United States?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It truly does depend because there are some cases that are -- that we are basically ready to issue and the embassy closed. And, remember, the embassy didn't just close on February 11th when we all left, but there were multiple times before that when we had to close because it wasn't safe to allow people to come to the embassy. And there were long times when our staff might be inside working but we were closed to the public. So there were constant interruptions to trying to get these immigrant visa cases completed and on their way. And even registrations of the birth of children, there were times when people couldn't come in with their kids and do that process.

So, there are some cases where we are pretty much ready to go and people may be on their way within a few days, and other cases where they may be there for some weeks. But -- so it is a high priority.

One other thing that we have done in response to the crisis is to basically put out the word that wherever you go, if you get on an IOM flight, or the Egyptians have room on a plane that they are taking out, we will make sure that wherever you are the embassy there will assist you with your visa. We won't say, "Oh, okay, well, too bad for you that you are there, you are going to have to travel to Djibouti now," or, "You are going to have to travel" -- so if they do immigrant visas at that place, we will do it.

Another point -- I know we are wrapping up, but another point that I think it is important to make is because so many people have said, "How come other countries can fly in there and scoop up their citizens, and you are not?" And so I think the important point to understand is that, in almost all cases of the other nationalities, their citizens in Yemen were there to work, or for -- yeah, mostly to work, maybe as a missionary or some sort of humanitarian thing, whatever it was they were doing, but they weren't people who had gone there with their families. And if they had, those families usually also had the same nationality.

So, if the Chinese were taking out Chinese what they were doing was loading up a plane full of people who all had a Chinese passport and nobody was coming board with a Yemeni wife or any other nationality. And that is also -- that was true for the Indians, the Russians, others who have been able to organize an evacuation. We have been handicapped by not having an embassy there -- so we don't have somebody there who can sort out who ought to get on a plane, if there is a plane, or get on the boat, if there is a boat. And we just have the more complicated situation of some family members would qualify sooner or later to go on to the United States and others wouldn't. And if you are going to take a planeload of people out of someplace and take them to a staging area, you pretty much want to do everything possible to make sure that everybody you brought in is going to travel on to the States.

We dealt with this in Lebanon when we did the evacuation there. We took people to Cypress and then sorted out who needs a visa, who needs this, and there were some people who ended up staying in Cypress and eventually returned to Lebanon because they couldn't go on to the United States. But --

QUESTION: Cypress sounds pretty nice.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, they were in a fair grounds living in tents and it probably got old pretty quick. But the goal in these kinds of situations is to be as clear as you can in your communication with people so they understand what they need to do, and they understand who in the family might not be able to go; to work as quickly as you can so that you move people as soon as possible; and to try to also make arrangements for their wellbeing in the meantime.

And, again, our team in Djibouti has been helping people find housing. That is a potential area where we may see increasing difficulty in the weeks ahead if we see a steady flow of people coming in not matched by an equally steady flow of people departing, then we are going to run in -- and they are looking into options for what they can do, if they need additional place for people to stay.

So it is a very big effort that is based in Washington, a lot of people working there, but also in different embassies in the region who are all cumulatively sort of part of the solution.

MODERATOR: Anything else, guys? No?

QUESTION: Well, this was great, thank you.