Travel Risk Management: Incident Recovery, Repatriation, and Program Adaptation

As COVID-19 continues to progress and international travel anticipates its resurgence, now is a great time for organizations to explore how they can bolster their Travel Risk Management (TRM) programs.  One of the areas that is often overlooked is the timeframe toward the end of an incident that is designed to ensure traveler recovery. The primary term associated with this timeframe is known as ‘repatriation,’ although organizations may label it differently depending on their internal language and protocols. While many associate repatriation as a benefit to their international insurance policies, there are several other activities that need to be accomplished during this time that are an integral component of any travel risk management program.  Singular components of the repatriation process are generally included in most TRM programs; however, formalizing the spectrum of activities outlined in this article can help organizations more effectively standardize their own programs, increase the safety of their travelers, and help fulfill duty of care obligations.

Contextualizing Repatriation
Repatriation occurs when an individual must return to their home country due to an experienced event abroad. If a repatriation does occur, it is indicating that the traveler will most likely require additional treatment or assistance when they arrive back to their home country.  For example, many travelers were repatriated due to the outbreak of COVID-19.  However, that is not the conclusion of the incident.  The conclusion occurs when the individual is both physically and mentally cleared by their doctors to return to normal life and work.  The second aspect and often lesser included activity, although just as important, includes the process of debriefing the incident and gathering intelligence.

Physical and Mental Health Protection
Repatriation is generally associated with medical issues. However, the complexity of some risks that individuals can experience abroad suggests that other considerations must be included in this process.  For example, if a traveler becomes victim to a crime or witnesses a death overseas, there should be support and resources available to help ensure their health, safety, and mental well-being. In this example, allowing time to decompress before resuming work, study, or other activities as well as ensuring they have access to mental health services to assist with the recovery process may be necessary.  While some cases may result in the traveler returning to their home country, accommodations must also account for those that remain on their trips.  People will respond to traumatic experiences differently, so the objective is to have a formal plan in place that is adaptable per the needs of each individual.

Debriefing and Intelligence Gathering
A second component that must be included in the repatriation process includes the gathering of information and intelligence regarding the incident.  While the traveler’s health and well-being are of utmost importance, it is also important to recognize the potential time-sensitivity with gathering incident-related information from them.  For example, if other travelers could be exposed to the same or similar incident the repatriated traveler just experienced, this individual may have critical intelligence related to minimizing and/or avoiding potential issues for those still abroad.  Another significant reason to conduct a debrief with the traveler is to obtain information that will provide lessons-learned for the intention of making programmatic adjustments to help reduce the risk of similar incidents happening in the future.  For example, these lessons learned may reveal needed TRM or travel policy changes, changes in what transportation should be used or what locations are safest for lodging, etc.  Lastly, if the incident was high profile, building this debriefing into the incident recovery process will provide an extra layer of preparation for potential media interaction or other public entities. Similar to protecting the health and safety of the traveler, this process is scalable based on the magnitude of the incident, but its importance cannot be overlooked.

Other Considerations
As mentioned earlier, repatriation is for those that are returning to their home countries.  However, there are times when a traveler experiences disruption abroad that doesn’t necessitate a return home.  For example, what if a traveler is victim to robbery?  Some individuals may not be phased by this; however, others may be extremely distraught.  Simply validating the traveler is well and obtaining a post-incident report may be sufficient for an individual remaining in country, while more intensive care and debriefing may be requisite for the traveler that returns home.  Therefore, it is important to have a formal plan that is flexible enough to accommodate those that can comfortably remain on the trip, as well as those that end up needing to return.  Generally, the well-being of the individual, or lack thereof, will be what indicates the level of care needed (although some incidents tend to automatically necessitate a return to one’s home country for intensive care and decompression, like a traveler who has experienced a kidnapping, for example).  Overall, outlining general parameters around what kind of incidents will necessitate a more through repatriation ahead of time will encourage efficiency into the recovery process.

The bottom line is that repatriation goes beyond returning a traveler to their home country for medical care.  The goals are twofold: (1) return a traveler back to their normal daily life and (2) debrief for lessons-learned to adjust the TRM program and gather time-sensitive information to mitigate risk of current and future incidents.  Lastly, it’s important to have a scalable plan to accommodate incidents that the traveler remains in country, as well as those requiring repatriation home.  The process may be labeled differently but incorporating these principles will encourage safer travel and make for a more proactive travel risk management program in the long-run. To further understand how repatriation fits into the architecture of a travel risk management program, click here ( it is a component of the Execution phase).

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