The Russian invasion of Ukraine is one of the largest risk scenarios on people’s minds today, with digital technology allowing the rest of the world to see the huge human cost in almost real time. While intelligence regarding a potential invasion was being broadcast for weeks, the fact that Russia pushed through with it and the speed at it advanced towards major cities still came as a shock.
The ongoing conflict has sparked discussion among organizations on how to keep their personnel safe in conflict zones overseas. Businesses with operations in Ukraine have evacuated their employees, with some doing so before the hostilities erupted. However, many foreigners, including students, remain stranded in the midst of the conflict.
Due to airspace restrictions imposed by countries in response to the invasion, travel has become quite complicated. Many foreigners in Russia also want to leave, amid fears that civil unrest will grow over domestic protests opposing the war and Moscow’s heavy-handed response to these protests.
“The immediate effects directly attributed to the global response banning Russian aircraft from entering their collective airspace and Russia’s reciprocating retaliation will directly impact aviation and have cascading consequences,” said Frank Harrison (pictured above), regional security director for North America at World Travel Protection. “For example, the Russian east-west air corridor’s closure from Europe into the Asia-Pacific region has resulted in US aviation authorities conducting assessments of Anchorage’s refuelling capacity as an Asia-Pacific hub. Overnight, we have turned our clocks back to Nov. 9, 1989, and resurrected the Cold War impacts on civilian carriers. However, unlike the Cold War, Canada has closed its airspace completely to Russian aviation. Gander, Newfoundland, Canada, is a primary divert and refuel stop for Russian airlines. This loss will significantly impede Cuba and Latin America flight routes.”
With many personnel stranded, organizations must work double time in ensuring their safety and getting them home as soon as possible. The ongoing conflict will provide very important lessons in managing this aspect of political risk, which comes with numerous humanitarian issues.
“Employees in conflict zones may be a mix of both nationals and foreign nationals,” said Smita Bhargava (pictured directly above), senior vice president at Clements Worldwide, which deals in high-risk lines such as kidnap and ransom and political violence. “Evacuation of foreign nationals back to their country of origin could be undertaken through a number of different circumstances, such as foreign embassies, employer insurance products and company (employer) planning. However, national employees would likely to be reliant on their own ability to travel to safety, likely under the guidance of local government. This can create a divide between employees within an organization and dramatically affect the level of trauma experienced. At Clements, we have a current example of a prospective client that is desperately seeking a blanket medical coverage to support both local and foreign nationals, regardless of geography, to ensure everyone receives the same level of protection and care. Supporting these emerging challenges is vital to help minimize trauma and reduce the potential long-lasting effects such as post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Dealing with employee safety risks in conflict zones
“Preparedness is key, so having a robust and up-to-date business continuity plan is vital at both a global and local level,” Bhargava said. “This provides employers and employees with a clear framework and procedural guide to follow that can help in times of crisis.”
One equally important aspect for organisations is to know where all their employees are at any time, to make sure everyone at risk is accounted for and communicated with.
“In addition, ensure your organization is listening to information being provided on current situations,” Bhargava said. “This can come from a variety of sources, including government agencies, embassies, specialist risk or security advisors or insurance providers, but all is essential to ensure organizations and employees stay up to date and informed.”
In recent years, the insurance and risk management industries have seen many political conflicts around the world, such as the War on Terror, the Arab Spring and Hong Kong protests. The industries have picked up vital experience from these conflicts, which can be applied to the current situation.
“Insurers and risk professionals have a wealth of information and can access specific tools to help measure and monitor risk,” Bhargava said. “These tools are vital in ensuring an organization’s operations and employees are protected if the worst were to happen. Insurers can also provide organizations with specific add-ons as part of the insurance package that are aligned to their operations. Services such as ongoing crisis management advice and evacuation support are vital when situations take a turn for the worst.”
Moving forward, Bhargava and Harrison both foresee huge changes in travel and employers’ duty of care towards their employees.
“The travel space was complicated enough with COVID-19 restrictions,” Harrison said. “Now, we face a new global impact to travel with the Ukraine crisis. In terms of safety, this crisis will clarify where one cannot travel with imposed travel and destination restrictions. How should travelers adapt to this changing landscape? They need to understand the basics of travel risk: the traveler, the destination, and the activity to be conducted. Understanding these three components will make travel selection easier, especially the destination. Many destinations we were familiar with in pre-COVID times have changed due to socio-economic factors, which translates to petty and opportunistic crime in perceived safe destinations. There is also the impact of criminal exploitation and profiteering of the pandemic to exploit economically affected communities and extend their enterprises into tourist destinations.”
“For multinational operations, duty of care towards all employees is a must, whether local or expatriated,” Bhargava said. “Ensuring they are not in harm’s way is paramount. When they must be in challenging locations, every step must be taken to minimize their personal risk. Contingency plans must be in place, and tested regularly, so that if an event does take place both employer and employee are as prepared as possible to deal with the situation. This ensures staff safety but also any adverse outcomes that could be perceived as corporate negligence. Remaining informed and educated on the political nature of countries is now more important than ever. If senior leaders are ill-equipped or making poor decisions that may impact the general safety of employees, then there is the potential for legal proceedings to be brought against them.”