Repatriating during the COVID-19 pandemic: Where did all the expats go?

Published on June 01, 2020

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As the coronavirus began to spread worldwide, more and more Americans living overseas began to make their way back to the United States with the hope of better healthcare and/or out of fears of becoming trapped out of the country for an extended period of time.

The repatriation of these US citizens began to become a problem for the US State Department as early as February, as Europe saw Italy and Spain facing dire infection and death rates associated with the virus.

Numerous stories were reported about Americans being trapped on cruise ships, but what was less covered was the fate of other US citizens who had been locked down in other countries while abroad for vacations, ministry, government postings or work.

The desire to return to the US was not limited to travelers. Reports of thousands of Americans who live as full-time residents in other countries wanting to return to the US became more real as the State Department began its repatriation flights in late March 2020.

In fact, between March 21, 2020, and May 27, 2020, the US Department of State reports that it:

  • Coordinated the repatriation of 95,083 Americans on 1,017 flights from 136 countries and territories.
  • Handled over 75,000 calls to its call center.

How bad was the “expat flight” from Ecuador?

As one of the first South American countries to deal with the spread of the pandemic, Ecuador faced an enormous problem with maintaining its health-care system in the early days of March. It quickly became a center of attention for the world when stories of bodies being dumped in the the streets of its financial capital, Guayaquil, became widely reported.

During that time, Americans who either resided in Ecuador or were simply travelling in the country, were trapped in there when the government cancelled all airline travel on March 18, 2020, a week after the World Health Organization characterized the COVD-19 outbreak as a pandemic.

Anecdotal reports began to surface that large numbers of Americans in Ecuador were seeking to return to the US and there was fear that this exodus would signal a huge decline in the number of expatriates maintaining permanent residency in the country.

This “expat flight” is in fact reflected by the number of expatriates that returned to the US on repatriation flights between March 21, 2020 and May 27, 2020. According to the US Department of State records, 4,803 Americans returned on 42 flights.

Where this number falls within the total population of American expatriates is difficult to quantify. The US does not publicly provide statistics for the number of its citizens residing overseas.Based on past US government reports and Ecuadorian news sources, the number of Americans residing in Ecuador is thought to be more than 20,000 and less than 50,000.

One source of information puts the number of US expatriates living in Ecuador in 2019 at 26,386 [see source]. Based on this figure, it can be assumed that as many at 18% of Ecuador’s US expatriate population returned to the US over the last 10 weeks.

While there is a normal migration of expatriates between the US and Ecuador throughout the year, this would seem to represent an exceptional increase in the flow back to the US for this time period.

Who lost the most US expats?

While the number of expatriates who left Ecuador over the last 10 weeks is alarming, it’s important to compare those numbers to the rest of Latin America and the world.

Latin America represented that largest flow of US citizens back to the country, accounting for almost 50% (47,311) of the 95,083 people who returned.

Non-Latin American countries that accounted for significant repatriations include Pakistan (3,192), Haiti (2,402) and India (6,170).

What comes as a bit of a surprise is that repatriations from Europe and the UK only amounted to 2,279 individuals (2.4% of the total of repatriations).

Within the cohort of 17 Latin American countries, Ecuador (4,803) ranked 5th, after Guatemala (5,638), El Salvador (6,885), Honduras (7,744), and Peru (10,063).

With 10.58% of those repatriated, Peru by far lost the largest number of American expatriates during the last 10 weeks (though a large percentage of those may be travelers versus permanent residents).

*Click here for a complete list of the number of people repatriated by country

Still in Ecuador and want to get back to the US?

For those expatriates who are still in Ecuador and are hoping to return to their home country, the good news is that Ecuador has relaxed its travel restrictions and is allowing international commercial travel to return to the country beginning on June 15, 2020.

However, there is still a question as to what routes will be available, what airlines will return to Ecuador and what occupancy levels flights will be running. It’s important to keep in mind that Ecuador is still requiring airlines to keep passenger occupancy to 30%, something that may make it difficult for any airline to consider restarting its routes in and out of Ecuador. One major US airline has already stated that it will have limited capacity through July (less than 20%).

So, while the airways are opening up, repatriation with the assistance of the US Department of State may still be the most viable option for returning to the US or Canada. For those returning to other locations, contact your Embassy or Consulate for information on your options.

For help getting on a repatriation flight back to the US, go to the US Embassy & Consulate in Ecuador website.

All of the information you need to schedule your return (as well as travel options within the country and potential commercial travel options) can be found as this website. You can also find information on returning to Ecuador from the US here.

For help in returning to your final destination once you land on US soil, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), a division of the Department of Health & Human Services, is working with the US Department of State to provide assistance under the U.S. Repatriation Program—this program provides temporary assistance to citizens and their dependents to return home following a Department of State coordinated mass evacuation. Click here for more information on this program.

What can you do if you overstayed your 90-day tourist visa because of the pandemic?

 On March 20, 2020, the Ecuadorian government announced a no-fault extension for tourists whose visa validity or 90-day visa-free stay expired during the emergency. Individuals can renew without paying a fine until 30 days after the emergency is lifted. On May 15, President Moreno extended the state of emergency through June 15, 2020. For more information, visit the Ecuadorian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

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