After an already record-breaking year, the phone at the emergency number for foreign affairs began ringing again. Stranded in the UK, Dutch people want only one thing: to go home before the holiday. If the airspace is closed, we cannot solve that.
On a typical Sunday, the phone rings at the State Department’s 24/7 call center 330 times. Last Sunday that hit 800 times. Including messaging via whatsapp and email, 1,500 people asked for help. Terrified Dutch in the UK wanted to know: Can I still go back to the Netherlands to celebrate Christmas? Concerned Dutch who still want to go to England: is this still possible?
No, says director Daniel Timmermans. Quietly, his general telephone office is not closing to Dutch overseas. Not that he thought it: With Brexit, more crowds were already expected and fewer people could take a vacation.
For the few “compassionate cases” – think of the people whose loved ones have died – who are now stranded in the country, the ministry is still trying to arrange for them to be allowed to go to the Netherlands. “It will also happen to you: You are in a country and suddenly it’s closed and you have nowhere to go. This is also very scary.”
Timmermans and his team have had to deal with it a lot in the past year. On a Thursday in mid-March, Timmermans still knew exactly that “the world is closed” in 24 hours. “It was like a snowball.” Within a few hours, 12,000 calls came. The 30 people who normally operate phone lines just couldn’t handle the influx. Timmermans felt helpless: “I literally have” help! “Named.”
It took a few days, but then there were about 90 people on the phone every day. His team has been supplemented with external affairs officials who can assist in the event of disasters or other crises. “I have received emails from all over the ministry asking: Can I help?” Okay!”
The people they spoke to had a variety of questions. From someone who wanted to know if her trip to Barcelona could continue to a sailor who suddenly could not dock anywhere in the Caribbean. But there are also really touching stories: a soldier pointed a pistol at the head of a woman in a Peruvian forest. Timmermans does not know the exact cause of this dangerous situation. In the end, the woman was taken out of the woods with the help of the Dutch embassy.
It’s also called a woman who desperately wanted to go home because her brother was dead. “Everyone understands that, of course.” But the staff at the center, which works 24 hours a day, seven days a week, was unable to bring her and others in difficult situations to the Netherlands. Sometimes this led to anger. “Anger is also an expression of frustration,” Timmerman explains. “You have to be clear: what you can do, what you cannot do. If the airspace is closed, we cannot solve that. Then we ask: Are you safe? Do you have a roof over your head?”
It often helps, Timmermans says, to give someone “space” to tell their story and demonstrate their understanding. “To think it’s really bad. That is often enough.” This spring, waiting times increased, leading to complaints on social media. Timmermans describes this as annoying. “But letting someone tell their story is more important than short waiting times.”
a glass ball
Summer is usually the busiest time of the year. Timmermans says he’s been busier than usual so far. A person who had to drive through an orange country (travel essential only) called to ask if it was wise to keep his car window closed. And there were people who wanted to know if their vacationing country was in “orange” in two months. “The Glass Ball Questions,” says Timmerman.
And by the way: What is needed? The staff provides advice on this only on the basis of travel advice. Then we say: the decision is yours. Often people need confirmation and really believe themselves: This holiday cannot continue. ”
It’s surprising, says Timmerman, that people who use the phone with his employees quickly share deeply personal stories. For example, the Dutch who tried to bring loved ones from abroad to the Netherlands. There was a man who had a relationship with two women and wanted to bring them – separately – to our country. “Then we explain the rules: You have to be able to prove that you have an enduring relationship,” Timmermans says. Then the man in question suddenly started arranging “something else”.
The call center for foreign affairs 24/7 in 2020 by numbers
Number of questions: more than 900,000 (in a normal year there are about 500,000)
Number of calls during the peak in March: 12,000 per day
Average call duration: about 7 minutes (with a peak of 1 hour)
Total number of employees: 110