IIn the spring of 2020, the largest repatriation campaign in the history of the Federal Republic took place: 240,000 Germans were brought back to Germany from abroad due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The federal government made it clear that this should not happen a second time. In emergencies, however, travelers can of course still count on consular help.
But what exactly does this mean for individual travelers who, unlike package tourists, are not taken care of by an operator?
Stranded in Panama because of Corona
First of all, a real case: Ronja Kötzer was stuck in one of the last open hostels in Panama City for seven days in mid-March, five days of which in complete uncertainty. The 23-year-old student from Passau actually wanted to travel to Peru after her internship abroad.
But then came the news of the worried mother, the border closure, armed patrols and the curfew. In the end, it was clear to Kötzer: “I have to go back to Germany.”
First, Kötzer entered the Federal Foreign Office’s crisis prevention list. Since the site was completely overloaded, it took four days for the registry to work. Meanwhile, the German searched intensively for return flights – most of them had either already been canceled or cost around 2,000 euros.
Then she heard about the return campaign. There should be two planes, the first for high-risk patients and doctors. Finally, on March 27, the embassy received the email: There would be a return flight to Frankfurt in two days.
Consular help even in the event of a travel warning
The example shows: Foreign missions such as embassies and consulates help if there are unrest or disasters in the country of residence. As with Ronja Kötzer, the representation can provide support when you leave the country. And: Germans can also use the Crisis Prevention List Elephant register so that the embassy can contact you in an emergency.
Foreign missions often also help travelers in other cases – for example when vacationers have been robbed and therefore have neither money nor passports. Then they issue replacement passports, for example. You can also put in contact with local lawyers, doctors and translators. Financial advance payments are only possible in exceptional cases. All of this was true before Corona and continues to apply.
The Foreign Office (AA) assures that the worldwide network of diplomatic missions is still available “to provide consular support to German citizens in emergencies and to find pragmatic solutions for a return to Germany if necessary”. This applies regardless of the existence of a travel warning.
Vacationers have no general right to help
However, it is always the case that consular help is help for self-help. So you have to try to help yourself or with the support of family and friends first.
A direct right of the individual to the granting of consular help is not regulated in the Consular Act, explains lawyer Vladimir Stamenkovic from Essen. Whether and how consular assistance is provided is at the discretion of the consular officer.
According to the Foreign Office the type of support depends on the circumstances and possibilities in individual cases. The spectrum ranges from general advice to specific practical support. Financial support is only available under strictly defined conditions.
In principle, the following applies: The German diplomatic missions generally help, but it depends on the individual case.
As a rule, however, individual travelers cannot count on support in rebooking their return trip. Here vacationers are left to fend for themselves, says Robert Bartel, legal advisor at Consumer advice center Brandenburg.
Although it is usually more expensive, a flexible ticket can be a solution. This means that you have the option of leaving earlier or later spontaneously if the circumstances on site or an infection require it. In any case, many airlines are currently offering free rebooking options.
When the Foreign Office warns of a trip
Travel warnings are an urgent appeal from the Federal Foreign Office to refrain from traveling – but not a travel ban. Vacationers decide on their own responsibility whether they should go on a trip or not. The diplomatic mission does not refuse to help just because there is a travel warning.
Lawyer Stamenkovic emphasizes, however, that there is no entitlement to certain protective measures. The competent authority could even accept significant violations of the rights of a citizen abroad to protect the general public. “This can be justified in particular if a citizen ignores a travel warning and accepts the risk of Sars-Cov-2 infection.”
A travel warning can also have other legal effects: For example, the international travel health insurance usually does not pay. If there is an evacuation, as with Ronja Kötzer, a travel warning can, according to Stamenkovic, influence the amount of the return costs, which the German state interprets beforehand.
Insurance only helps with illness
The German diplomatic mission abroad cannot disregard laws and regulations in the country of travel. If a holidaymaker becomes infected with Corona on site or if there is even a suspicion, the country’s authorities decide which measures are to be taken, as the Federal Foreign Office reports.
As in Germany, the authorities can order quarantine measures. These must also be followed by travelers. As a rule, it is not possible to return during this period – and the federal government cannot bring back infected people.
A foreign travel health insurance reimburses the costs of medical treatment abroad in the case of Corona and pays for the return transport to Germany – unless there is a clause in the contract that excludes pandemics. That’s it!
The insurance does not apply to travel restrictions and travel warnings. A travel interruption insurance does not cover costs if there are suddenly official restrictions on site. And travel insurers generally do not reimburse the costs of a repatriation to Germany organized by the state.
Ronja Kötzer is also still waiting for the invoice for the return flight from Panama. “My originally planned return flight from Peru would have cost 280 euros,” says the student. She now reckons with significantly higher costs of several hundred euros. Communication was often difficult and there was great uncertainty, she said. “But in the end everything worked out.”