Foreign Ministry’s assistance abroad reinforced remotely from Helsinki during coronavirus crisis
Because of the coronavirus crisis, tens of thousands of Finnish travellers have returned home in recent weeks. The Finnish missions abroad help travellers around the world, but the need for help shows also in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Helsinki, as the number of contacts to the Ministry’s 24/7 Service Centre, consular services and the social media has skyrocketed.
Coronavirus brought a tenfold increase in the number of contacts to the Ministry's 24/7 Service Centre
For many requesters, the Service Centre is the first helpline to contact during this crisis.
“Our most important task is to advise the caller to act in a way that best helps to resolve the situation,” says Lauri Järvenpää, one of the on-call officers at the Ministry.
Embassies, consulates general and honorary consulates abroad work together with the Service Centre, and those in need of help are often advised to contact them next.
At the moment, the callers are concerned about the difficulties in arranging their return home. The most frequently asked questions are related to departing and connecting flights and restrictions in different countries on the route home.
“People are also worried about the problems faced by their families,” Järvenpää says.
"It is important to remember that problems cannot always be resolved over the phone from the other side of the world. The Service Centre is not able to influence the laws and regulations of another country or the restrictions put in place because of the coronavirus outbreak,” he continues.
Despite the global crisis situation, help and information will be always available in the end.
“The majority of the difficult questions can fortunately be resolved by giving the requesters the right website, telephone number or name of a cooperation partner,” Järvenpää says.
24/7 Service Centre
- The telephone number of the Crisis Service Centre is for emergencies only.
- Call the number in issues concerning urgent consular assistance when you cannot contact the Finnish Embassy in the region.
- The Service Centre operates 24/7
Consular services every day of the week
In a crisis situation, office hours are forgotten and travellers need help around the clock. Together with the Finnish missions abroad, the Unit for Consular Assistance has collected information on Finnish travellers staying abroad and on ways of helping them return home since January.
"Since the Government's recommendation to return home, issued in March, work has been carried out in two shifts, seven days a week. Travellers have received advice and assistance to facilitate their return to Finland from around the world,” says Sanna Ringborg from the Unit for Consular Assistance.
Daily cooperation with the other Nordic countries and the EU member states has enabled hundreds of Finns to return on repatriation flights organised by different countries. So far, Finland has also organised 12 repatriation flights from both Europe and long-haul destinations. Flights have been arranged from places where commercial connections or repatriation flights organised by other countries have not been sufficient to repatriate Finnish and other Nordic travellers.
The Unit for Consular Assistance has worked closely with the Finnish missions abroad. In a number of missions, the whole staff have been harnessed for the assistance of travellers. Active team work has helped the majority of those in need of assistance to return to Finland. However, the work is not over yet; some 1,500 travellers would still like to return to Finland and need the help of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
Finnish travellers and the coronavirus crisis
- According to Statistics Finland, Finns make more than eight million trips abroad each year.
- More than 250,000 travel notifications are annually submitted at matkustusilmoitus.fi.
- During the coronavirus crisis, the number of active travel notifications has not exceeded 50,000.
- In mid-April 2020, the number of active travel notifications was 29,000.
- An estimated 1,500 travellers are still trying to return to Finland.
From communications officers to chat agents
At the beginning of March, the spread of coronavirus started to show on the Foreign Ministry’s social media channels in that we received an increasing number of questions related to travelling. When it became evident that the need for information is huge also outside office hours, the Ministry decided that its 24/7 media coordination desk must follow the social media channels, too.
“Luckily, thanks to the Ministry's rotation schemes, the staff of our department have plenty of experience of consular matters. We managed to quickly get training on how to meet customers on social media and chat services,” says Communications Officer Hanni Hyvärinen.
“We were able to advice many customers on how to proceed but sometimes we could only listen and sympathise. Our missions abroad do their best to help Finnish nationals, working in difficult conditions and often with limited resources. Small missions, in particular, whose consular district covers several countries, find it difficult to help and respond to everyone,” Hyvärinen says.
Nettikonsuli (Internet Consular)
- A service provided by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs on Facebook
- Visitors can post there questions about travel safety or consular services offered by Finnish missions abroad.
- When Finnish travellers or foreign nationals with a permanent residence in Finland are in distress abroad, they post a question to Nettikonsuli.
- The questions are answered in Finnish and Swedish by the Ministry's on-call officers.
- You can find the service on Facebook.
Please, submit a travel notification!
The Foreign Ministry recommends that anyone travelling abroad should submit their travel plans and contact details at matkustusilmoitus.fi. When you have submitted your travel notification, the Ministry has your personal details, contact details that are valid while you are abroad, and other travel details for use in the event of an emergency or crisis. We recommend that you submit your travel notification to help the Ministry find your whereabouts and contact you if necessary. The information submitted on the service is used only in the event of a crisis.
You can register on the service online or via a text message or while you are already abroad. In case you are unable to do that yourself, ask a friend or a family member in Finland to fill in the details on your behalf.
Remember to cancel your travel notification, if you return earlier than the date of return mentioned in your travel notification form. If you have registered at matkustusilmoitus.fi, you can edit your details yourself. Alternatively, you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is the second article in a series about the things done by the Foreign Ministry in Finland and in the missions abroad during the coronavirus crisis. In the next articles, public officials working in Finnish missions in different countries abroad will tell about their work.