Annual Report 2005-2006
 

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1. Overviews2. Performance3. Corporate4. Appendixes5. Financials6. Glossaries and Compliance Index

Your location: Performance > Outcome 2 > Output 2.1 > 2.1.1 Consular Services

OUTPUT 2.1: Consular and passport services

2.1.1 Consular Services

On this page: Overview :: Consular services :: Travel advice :: Responsiveness to consular crises :: Assisting Australians overseas :: Outlook

Overview

With more Australians than ever travelling and living overseas, providing high-quality consular services continued to be a major priority for the department. In 2005–06, of over five million Australians who travelled overseas, 17 505 required significant consular assistance—a decrease of 8226 over the previous year (the figures for 2004–05 were exceptionally high given the large number of cases—15 153—that resulted from the Indian Ocean tsunami). Media interest in consular cases continued to intensify, with around two out of every three media inquiries to the department relating to consular issues.

In addition to the regular range of consular cases managed by our staff (including deaths, hospitalisations, arrests and assistance to victims of assaults, theft and other criminal activity), we led the whole of government response to major consular crises resulting from terrorism, natural disasters and civil unrest. We coordinated inter-agency support for Australian victims and their families of the London and Bali bombings and two attacks on the Red Sea coast of Egypt. Our response to the Bali bombings confirmed Australia's crisis management machinery is at the leading edge of international best practice.

The department assisted Australians affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Hurricane Wilma in Mexico and the Yogyakarta earthquake. We managed major evacuations of Australians and other nationals following civil unrest in Solomon Islands and East Timor. Our consular officers were quickly on the scene to provide critical support when Australians were killed or injured in accidents abroad—notably following a major bus crash near Cairo in January 2006 in which six Australians died and another 26 were injured.

We further evaluated and refined our crisis management arrangements and our consular contingency planning. In addition to country-specific contingency plans, we developed contingency strategies to cover events that attracted large numbers of Australians overseas such as Anzac Day in Turkey, the Winter Olympics in Italy and the FIFA World Cup Finals in Germany. We also developed detailed contingency planning in the event of an outbreak of pandemic influenza.

Underpinning our consular response systems and activities is the department's comprehensive public information campaign which continued to help Australians make informed decisions about their travel arrangements. We introduced changes to the format and presentation of travel advisories to make them clearer and simpler to use. These reforms were endorsed by the Smartraveller Consultative Group—a high-level body, chaired at parliamentary secretary level, to enhance cooperation between government agencies and key travel industry representatives on safe travel issues. We issued 499 travel advisory updates for 152 destinations, providing Australians with up-to-date advice on security and other conditions affecting overseas travel.

The department's expanding consular agenda will be supported by an additional budget allocation of $74 million over four years. To ensure we continue to provide a world-class consular service in an environment that poses increasingly complex challenges, we will use the new resources to recruit and train more staff for consular and crisis response work in Canberra and overseas. We will also update our Crisis Centre and information technology systems to enhance the help consular staff provide to Australians overseas.

Consular services

The department improved the accessibility of its consular services through the expansion of its consular network and enhancements to service delivery mechanisms. With the opening in 2006 of an Austrade-managed consulate-general in Tripoli, Libya and a consulate in Canakkale, Turkey, Australians can now access consular services in 171 locations overseas (including through 23 Canadian missions under our Consular Sharing Agreement). To further strengthen Australia's ability to deliver consular services overseas, we rolled out the web-enabled version of the department's Consular Management Information System to consulates managed by Austrade.

Australians travelling and living overseas are also supported by a network of honorary consuls in 47 locations. Ministers approved a raft of recommendations made in our review of the Honorary Consul program. These included an improved training package for honorary consuls, enhanced access to consular information systems, greater involvement in contingency planning and crisis management, and additional public information activities to inform Australian travellers about the extent and limitations of services offered by honorary consuls.

Travel advice

Photo - See caption below for description
Departmental officials Simeon Gilding, Assistant Secretary Consular Operations Branch (front left) and Robin Hamilton- Coates, First Secretary and Consul, Australian embassy Bangkok (second from left) tour the facilities at Klong Prem Central Prison, Bangkok during a consular visit in June 2006. Photo: Courtesy of Klong Prem Central Prison
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Travel advisories provide up-to-date, practical information about most destinations to which Australians travel, helping them make informed decisions about travelling safely. After extensive consultation with the travel industry and independent testing with travellers, the department revised the format and presentation of travel advisories to make them clearer and simpler to use. Mr Downer announced the changes in an address to the National Press Club in November 2005. The Smartraveller Consultative Group also endorsed the changes and supported the department's ongoing efforts to improve its travel advice product.

In 2005–06, we issued 499 travel advice updates for 152 destinations, up from 447 last year. This reflected the department's urgent priority to alert Australians to possible terrorist and other security-related threats that could affect their safety overseas. We liaised closely with the National Threat Assessment Centre (NTAC) to ensure a strong linkage between travel advice and NTAC country threat assessments. We enhanced our public information material to promote public understanding of the purpose and relevance of travel advice. During the year, we also issued 28 new travel bulletins about major world events and incidents including Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Torino Winter Olympics and Paralympics, the collapse of Air Nauru and the FIFA World Cup Finals in Germany.

Now in its third year, the Government's $9.7 million travel advice public information campaign, smartraveller, continued to promote safe overseas travel through targeted national television, print and internet advertising. Funding was approved to continue the program over the next four years. The smartraveller website recorded an average of 322 000 page-views per week (a 48 per cent increase over the average for the previous year) and the number of clients subscribing to our email travel advice service increased to 91 000 (up from 65 000 last year). The automated smartraveller telephone service (1300 139 281)—which makes travel advice accessible to Australians without internet access—registered an average of 2625 calls per month. The travel industry continued to support the smartraveller campaign, with membership of the Charter for Safe Travel increasing from 2200 to 2550. Charter members commit to encourage their customers to consult travel advice and organise travel insurance.

The department's suite of 14 consular information publications continued to generate strong public interest, with 1.4 million printed copies distributed throughout the year. We developed a flyer advising Australians how they can reduce the risks of contracting avian influenza and arranged for its distribution at airports as part of an ongoing effort by the Government to keep Australians informed about the possibility of a pandemic.

The department continued efforts to combat the abuse of children overseas, including by engaging Child Wise (an internationally recognised child protection advocacy organisation) to conduct a two-day training workshop for hotels in Fiji on risk-minimisation strategies to help prevent child abuse.

smarttraveller.gov.au

Improving the accessibility of travel advice

The department strives constantly to make the use of travel advice easier for the general public. On 8 November 2005, Mr Downer launched a series of changes to our online travel advice product. The changes are designed to:

The changes include:

The changes were developed in consultation with the Smartraveller Consultative Group and have been welcomed by the public and travel industry. We received positive comment on the revisions through internal feedback mechanisms and independent market surveys.

Responsiveness to consular crises

The difficult international security environment, civil unrest, natural disasters and tragic accidents again tested the department's crisis response mechanisms and day-to-day consular systems.

Terrorism continued to pose a major threat to Australians. Nine Australians were hospitalised and one lost his life as a result of the London bombings in July 2005. Consular officers from our post in London visited Australian victims in hospitals within hours of the bombings. Our consular hotline handled almost 14 000 calls in relation to the bombings.

The department's response to the terrorist bombings in Bali in October 2005 illustrated how efficiently our crisis management arrangements can be activated. Our crisis centre and consular hotline were operational within two hours of notification of the bombings and an Emergency Response Team was on the first plane to Bali following the bombings. All of the injured were evacuated within 36 hours, with the most seriously injured evacuated within 24 hours. Our consular hotline responded to more than 12 300 calls from concerned friends and relatives in Australia. The consulate-general in Bali, assisted by the Emergency Response Team, provided help on the ground to a large number of hospitalised and distressed Australians and their families.

We also provided assistance to those caught up in the terrorist attacks at Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab on Egypt's Red Sea coast and to passengers of a cruise liner attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia.

The department helped Australians affected by natural disasters including: Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in September 2005; Hurricane Wilma which struck the Mexican coast near Cancún in October 2005; and the Yogyakarta earthquake in May 2006. Consular staff provided support following a number of accidents resulting in deaths and injuries to Australians, ranging from the case involving Australia's national women's cycling team in Germany in July 2005 and plane crashes in Cyprus, Peru and Azerbaijan, to two major bus crashes in Egypt (see box below) and another in a remote part of Nigeria. In April and May 2006 the department managed the return to Australia of our nationals affected by civil unrest in Solomon Islands and East Timor.

We continued to refine our already well-developed crisis response capability. Including the Emergency Response Team deployed to Bali, the department sent consular teams to assist with crises on 12 occasions throughout the year. The allocation, in May 2006, of $74 million over four years to strengthen our capacity to assist Australians overseas and respond to emergencies will ensure we remain at the leading edge in the delivery of consular services.

Australian embassy responds to consular emergencies in Egypt

Consular work was a major focus for the Australian embassy in Cairo over the year. The post provided prompt and intensive assistance to Australians affected by major bus accidents and terrorist attacks.

On 10 January 2006, six Australians died and 26 were injured, many seriously, in a bus accident near Cairo. They were among a group of police and emergency service officers and family members travelling on a goodwill visit. Our Ambassador in Cairo arranged for the urgent transfer of victims from a public hospital with basic facilities to a leading private hospital.

The embassy helped insurance companies and families organise medical evacuations where necessary. Staff arranged to repatriate the remains of those who died. Belongings were located, secured and returned wherever possible. In Canberra, officers worked closely with families and Australian police authorities to keep relatives at home informed and managed many public inquiries.

To provide 24-hour support to the victims and their families, the embassy established an office near the hospital and the department deployed six additional consular staff to Cairo. The embassy provided extensive assistance to relatives who came to Egypt, including airport reception, hotel transfers, accommodation arrangements and briefings. Staff arranged counselling and pastoral care for those affected, coordinated assistance by volunteers from the Australian community and arranged further medical attention for discharged patients.

When another bus accident on the Red Sea coast on 31 January 2006 took the lives of two Australians and injured three others, the embassy was well prepared to respond swiftly and professionally.

In July 2005, explosions killed 88 people in the popular resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai. A joint Australia/UK team was the first diplomatic presence on the scene to provide consular assistance. By combining resources with our consular partners, we were able to establish quickly that all Australians in the area were safe.

Australians were less fortunate during the April 2006 terrorist bombings in Dahab. Two of our nationals were injured but by early morning, the post had secured their evacuation by Egyptian military aircraft to the best private hospital in Cairo. Embassy staff made the seven-hour journey by road to Dahab where they liaised with the local authorities and searched hospitals, hotels and other establishments for other Australians requiring assistance, eventually accounting for all nationals known to be in the area. Additional staff were again sent to Cairo to help the injured and their families until they were well enough to leave Egypt with medical escorts in May 2006.

The department enhanced its country-specific contingency planning and developed comprehensive consular contingency plans to cover events attracting large numbers of Australians overseas such as Anzac Day in Turkey, the Winter Olympics in Italy and the FIFA World Cup Finals in Germany.

We worked closely with other departments and governments to improve our planning and preparedness for an outbreak of pandemic influenza, including through the development of an overarching pandemic influenza consular contingency plan and post-specific plans for high-risk countries.

Assisting Australians overseas

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An Australia Day citation was awarded to the Bali Bombings October 2005 crisis response team which included staff from the Public Diplomacy, Consular and Passports Division and many volunteers in Canberra who worked in the departmentís 24-hour crisis centre. The citation also rewarded colleagues at our posts in Bali and Singapore and the Emergency Response Team that deployed from Canberra to Bali. The Secretary Mr Michael LíEstrange with representatives of the crisis response team. Photo: Michael Jensen.
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Although major consular crises can attract significant public and media attention, they do not represent the range or quantity of consular services the department provides to Australians overseas. The past year saw continued high demand for these services. Consular staff provided assistance to 17 505 Australians in difficulty in 170 countries. At any time the department was managing an average of almost 1000 cases, up from fewer than 700 the previous year. Many of these cases required intensive management, notably cases involving drugs, the death penalty, terrorism or fatal accidents. We prepared over 1270 media talking points on consular matters, a marked increase over the 729 prepared in 2004–05.

The department's consular caseload was highly complex. It often involved cases in isolated locations or countries with cultural, health and legal systems unfamiliar to Australians and about which we seek to inform our nationals through our travel advisories. Examples of the diversity of cases the department managed were: a woman fatally shot in Thailand; a journalist caught in crossfire between rebels and government forces in East Timor; and the repatriation of women being held by their husbands against their will in Middle Eastern countries.

The department closely monitored the welfare of more than 291 Australian prisoners overseas, including those convicted for drug offences in Bali. We paid particular attention to the physical and emotional welfare of three minors convicted for drug offences in Cambodia and Hong Kong.

The department worked constructively with our consular partners, notably the United Kingdom, in responding to crises such as the terrorist attack in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Hurricane Wilma in Mexico and the earthquake in Yogyakarta. We cooperated closely with other government agencies, often in extreme circumstances, to provide consular assistance to Australians. For example, our consul-general in Baghdad was involved in a military-style operation requiring helicopter transport and security assistance by Australian and British forces, to visit an imprisoned Australian in northern Iraq. The party encountered a surface-to-air missile threat and negotiated a road targeted by bombers on the day of the visit. In another case, we worked with the Department of Defence on the HMAS Armidale's rescue of five young Australians stranded on an island of Tonga due to severe weather conditions.

Against the backdrop of high-profile cases like these which generate strong media interest, the department faced an ongoing challenge to explain the legal and practical limits of the consular support we can offer. This was underscored following Hurricane Katrina when US Government restrictions on travel into affected areas delayed our assistance to Australians in difficulty, generating considerable media criticism of our responsiveness to the crisis. The department's smartraveller campaign aims to highlight for travellers the risks they face, their responsibility to minimise and avoid exposure to risks and the importance of arranging adequate travel insurance.

PERSONAL PROFILE: JULIE SHIELS OAM, CONSULAR AND ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICER

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Julie Shiels (right) with departmental colleague Janette Lynagh (left) in the Consular Crisis Centre.
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In 2005–06 the department provided significant consular assistance to almost 16 000 Australians overseas. Supplying this degree of high-quality service requires dedicated financial resources, logistical support, communications infrastructure, strong relationships between departments in Canberra and governments overseas, and skilled staff ready and willing to travel to the world's hot spots at a moment's notice.

Julie Shiels is one of the department's team of experienced and dedicated consular staff. In April 2006, following post-electoral civil unrest and rioting in Solomon Islands, Julie was sent to Honiara with one hour's notice as part of the Government's Emergency Response Team (ERT). Her role was to help coordinate voluntary assisted departure flights of Australian and other citizens to Brisbane and Townsville.

Julie hit the ground running, immediately being called upon to provide support at the airport to process Australians who voluntarily accepted the offer of seats on the ADF aircrafts. She also played a key role in the transportation of those departing to the airport in a police-escorted convoy. Difficult working conditions were exacerbated by the imposition of a curfew and lack of access to services and amenities. After working long hours Julie and other ERT members bunked down in make-shift accommodation on fold-up army beds. The one thing Julie will not forget was the 'look of relief on the faces of the departees' when they boarded planes to Australia. In total, the Government evacuated 145 people to Australia during the crisis.

Julie has worked in other crisis situations overseas. On 12 October 2002, when terrorists detonated a bomb in a Bali nightclub, Julie was among the first officials sent to Bali to provide assistance to families of the victims. She was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for her work in the aftermath of the bombing. When working in crisis situations she emphasises how important it is 'to listen, to clearly disseminate information and to support each other.' Reflecting on her experiences over 15 years in the department, Julie notes that the department's consular response times these days are expected to be almost instantaneous and that staff deployed to the scene of the crisis must 'adapt quickly to new surroundings and tasks.'

After serving as a locally engaged staff member in the Consulate-General in San Francisco, Julie joined the department in 1990 and has served on overseas postings in Ottawa, Phnom Penh, Jakarta and Honiara.

Australians facing the death penalty overseas were a major focus for the department. We worked actively with ministers and Van Nguyen's legal team in support of his unsuccessful plea for clemency in Singapore and provided assistance to his family. Ministerial representations, supported by the department, contributed to the Vietnamese Government's decision to commute to life imprisonment the sentences of two Australians and a permanent resident convicted for narcotics trafficking. Following the capital sentences handed down to two of the nine Australians convicted for drug trafficking in Bali, the department supported Mr Downer's representations to the Indonesian Government urging prosecutors to seek custodial sentences in place of the death penalty.

In consultation with the AFP, we developed more rigorous procedures for coordinating our efforts to locate Australians reported missing overseas. The revised protocol includes procedures for exchanging information on new cases and a quarterly review mechanism to ensure coordinated follow-up. The department regularly reviewed missing persons inquiries with the AFP.

To improve our service delivery to consular clients, we introduced a new complaint handling mechanism in December 2004, enabling consular clients to provide direct feedback on our services. Public feedback we received in 2005–06 was overwhelmingly positive. All complaints were investigated in a timely manner and where warranted, corrective action was taken.

The demand for notarial services continued to grow, representing an increase of 14 per cent over the previous year.

Outlook

Photo - See caption below for description
Ambassador to Thailand Bill Paterson and Mrs Helen Paterson sprinkle flowers on a wreath at the proposed site of Thailand’s permanent tsunami memorial in Phang Nga Province on 26 December 2005, the first anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami. The Australian embassy in Bangkok also organised an Australian event on Patong Beach, Phuket Island, to remember Australian lives lost in the tragedy.
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Support for Australians travelling and living overseas will continue to be a high priority for the department. We will undertake intensive work to strengthen our consular response capacity through the implementation of a Consular Enhancement Program, funding for which was announced in the May 2005 Budget. Four priority areas for 2006–07 will be to:

We will continue to give priority to the smartraveller public information campaign, for which we secured an additional $13.1 million funding over the next four years (announced in the May 2006 budget). The campaign will build on previous efforts to raise public awareness of the department's travel advice service and the importance of preparing for overseas travel, through new television, print and multimedia promotions.

TABLE 10. CONSULAR SERVICES PROVIDED TO AUSTRALIAN TRAVELLERS
  2001–02 2002–03 2003–04 2004–05 2005-06
Australian travellers1 3 508 200 3 429 960 4 080 300 4 745 540 5 000 860
Hospitalised Australians given general welfare and guidance 722 864 666 638 819
Australians evacuated to another location for medical purposes 116 203 81 167 82
Next of kin guided or assisted with disposal of remains in relation to overseas deaths 639 681 547 642 811
Australians having difficulty arranging their own return to Australia given guidance and assistance 81 109 66 1 599 68
Inquiries made about Australians overseas who could not be contacted by their next of kin 1 838 5 767 711 16 5452 8 457
Australians arrested overseas 649 649 728 736 752
Australians in prison overseas (as at 30 June) 180 184 215 166 291
Australians in financial difficulty who were lent public funds to cover immediate needs (travellers' emergency loans) 739 610 454 395 393
Australians given general welfare and guidance 19 9144 10 129 9 478 6 283 6 2253
Total number of cases involving Australians in difficulty 24 158 19 196 12 946 25 731 17 505
Notarial acts5 74 932 73 514 87 545 100 851 115 418
Total number of Australians provided with consular assistance 99 090 92 710 100 491 126 582 132 923
  1. This figure draws on ABS data and includes permanent departures, long-term departures and short-term departures of Australian residents.
  2. Whereabouts figure includes tsunami-related inquiries (15 178).
  3. Includes the following sub-categories: assaults (135), theft (1381), welfare of children (87) and other welfare matters (4622).
  4. Includes minor non-case inquiries which in subsequent years have been recorded separately under quantity information.
  5. These statistics include notarial acts performed by overseas posts, Canberra and state and territory offices in Australia.

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