MFA crisis team had busy year helping S'poreans overseas

The Singapore Armed Forces medical team in Gokarna to provide relief for the residents. They were in the village 10km from Kathmandu, to treat victims of the earthquake in Nepal.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

When a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on April 25 last year, hundreds of foreigners were stranded at the airport and trying desperately to leave the country.

But consular officer Wang Huihui from Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) had to board the earliest commercial flight into Kathmandu instead.

The 25-year-old was part of a four- member Crisis Response Team (CRT) sent to Kathmandu, whose responsibilities include evacuating Singaporeans in overseas crises, such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks

"When we landed at Kathmandu, the first thing that greeted us was a 6.8-magnitude aftershock while the plane was still on the runway. It was unsettling to feel the aircraft shaking violently," said Ms Wang.

Last year, the MFA sent the CRT to help Singaporeans in five major overseas incidents, including the Yemen armed conflict in April, the Sabah earthquake in June and the Bangkok bomb blast in August.

The MFA said this "was the highest ever deployed in recent years".

It said "the frequency and scale of crises have intensified in recent years", amid an uncertain global security climate and increased frequency of natural and man-made disasters. In the past year, for instance, there were bombings in major cities such as Paris and Brussels.

The CRT was first dispatched in 1997 in response to the SilkAir Flight MI185 crash in the Musi River near Palembang, Indonesia.

In the Nepal earthquake last year, the MFA facilitated the return of 71 Singaporeans. The ministry said it worked under challenging circumstances to contact Singaporeans in Nepal, as it did not have a permanent presence there and telecommunication lines and Internet connections were disrupted.

The CRT set up a registration point at the airport and worked with the Nepalese authorities to secure landing slots for the Republic of Singapore Air Force C-130 aircraft used to evacuate Singaporeans. It also had to trace Singaporeans in the affected area who had registered online with the MFA and to verify the safety of those whose next of kin provided leads.

Emergency travel documents were issued to Singaporeans whose passports were lost or left behind to facilitate their return home.

In Parliament last month, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Mohamad Maliki Osman urged Singaporeans to stay safe when travelling by "staying in close contact with their next of kin and close friends, taking necessary precautions for their personal safety and planning properly for their travels".

These include buying comprehensive travel insurance and providing active contact details to the MFA.

Singapore residents make about nine million trips abroad via air and sea each year.

The MFA said not many Singaporeans who went abroad registered online with it. Last year, only about 300,000 travellers did so.

Ms Wang said it was her first encounter with an earthquake and she recalled how she had only a few hours to get ready for the deployment.

"When I got the news, it was the weekend and I was watching a movie. I left halfway to prepare for my trip," she said.

There was definitely some apprehension about going to Nepal, but "I was reminded of my responsibility to assist Singaporeans who wish to return home safely", she added.

This article was first published on May 30, 2016. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.