U.S. companies are enlisting former military and law enforcement professionals to help employees in Ukraine navigate congested roads and train stations to slip across the border to safety.
The secretive and often dangerous work, supported by a phalanx of de facto travel agents working phones and PCs, highlights the efforts by employers worldwide — from big banks and law firms to technology companies and nonprofits — to get their people out of a war zone.
Many of the world’s best-known brands have halted operations in the region or cut ties completely in recent days, after Russia’s attack on Ukraine brought widespread condemnation and economic sanctions. While some employees already have fled, the pullback has left those who remain in a difficult spot, particularly with most air travel and financial transactions suspended.
Banking giant Citigroup Inc. said last week that it’s helping some of its workers seek refuge in Poland. Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook said in a staff memo that “in Ukraine, we have been in contact with every employee, assisting them and their families in any way we can.” Many others are offering to continue paying their workers.
“We have found mercenaries who are willing to take vans of people,” Visa Inc. Chief Executive Officer Al Kelly said at a conference this week, describing the harrowing efforts to rescue workers. The financial firm, which has about 155 employees based in Ukraine and about 210 in Russia, has helped dozens get out.
“We have security in Romania, Poland and Hungary with Sprinter vans loaded with supplies, and we’re within half mile of the border crossing points in those cases to help families once they’re extracted,” he said.
Most companies have remained quiet about their extraction efforts, and the security firms who specialize in the work declined to name their clients, citing privacy concerns and the risk to employees remaining in the countries. But interviews with professionals in the field described the increasingly difficult and risky work required to help people escape.
International SOS, which provides medical and security services, has been operating two or three evacuation missions daily from Ukrainian cities since Feb. 27, said Julian Moro, senior vice president and regional security director for the Americas. The company, whose staff includes some former military and government services personnel, creates a detailed plan for each movement with profiles of individuals involved, including health and medical needs, an evacuation route with planned stops for food and fuel, and where they will be dropped to cross the border on foot.
“It’s a long and arduous journey for much of the time,” Moro said in an interview. Ground movements “are the most complicated and, to a degree, the most dangerous.”
Altour International Inc., a unit of New York-based Internova Travel Group, has helped about 1,000 people get out of Russia and Ukraine for its corporate travel management customers. Initially, that was done mostly by air, but the shutdown of Ukrainian airspace following Russia’s invasion has forced the company to turn to trains, boats, rail and cars.
“Now that things are under attack, moving people out is very challenging,” said John Rose, Altour’s chief risk and security officer. “If we can get them out of the area of attack, we can move them safely.”
The company now is fielding requests to help small groups get out of Belarus, Moldova and Georgia, he said. The most-challenging situations get referred to Exlog Global, a veteran-owned risk management and security company headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida.
Exlog has helped almost 300 people escape Ukraine, sometimes consulting on how to travel and other times physically moving people out of Kyiv and other locations. It has mostly aided small groups, including five children taken to the Hungarian border. There, Exlog negotiated with local military commanders to get the kids out.
Some evacuations have taken two or three hours, others as long as 30.
Besides the safety risks, financial restrictions have become a significant hurdle for extraction efforts. In many cases, electronic transactions are no longer possible for booking hotels or transportation.
“The situation on the ground is dire,” said Martin Ferguson, vice president of public affairs for American Express Global Business Travel. The cash requirement means the company is “essentially unable to support anything” within Ukraine’s borders.
The company, a multinational travel and risk management firm part-owned by the credit-card giant, is also helping people after they leave the country. It has arranged for some large groups to move beyond border checkpoints in Poland, Romania and Moldova to accommodations elsewhere.
Not every group is being personally escorted out: In some cases, Ukrainian evacuees are given instructions on how to exit the country on their own, with their progress monitored by the firms.
Evacuation efforts have been complicated by Ukraine’s decree that most men ages 18 to 60 must remain in the country, said George Taylor, a former marine and Exlog’s chief operating officer. Some expected evacuees have refused to leave if their husbands, brothers or fathers had to stay behind.
“Families didn’t want to break up,” he said. “We can’t convince the people to leave on behalf of companies. We just give the best advice and people make their own decisions. Everybody is different.”
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