Annual Report 2006-2007
 

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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 :: Strengthening our consular network :: Assisting Australians overseas :: Responding to and preparing for consular crises :: Keeping Australians informed :: Client service charter :: Outlook

Overview

With Australians continuing to travel overseas in large numbers, often to unstable and higher-risk destinations, the demand for quality consular services continued to grow over the past year. In 2006–07, consular staff assisted Australians in difficulty in 33 927 cases and in 169 countries. These included a number of high-profile cases where Australian heads of mission and consular officials, sometimes at personal risk, helped Australians in remote and difficult locations.

The department responded to a number of large-scale crises involving conflict, civil unrest, natural disasters and significant transport incidents. The department’s Crisis Centre was activated and multi-agency Emergency Response Teams (ERTs) deployed on four occasions—in response to the conflict in Lebanon, the civil unrest in Tonga, the coup in Fiji and the crash of Garuda Flight 200 in Yogyakarta.

In July and August 2006, the department led the Government’s Lebanon evacuation and repatriation operation—one of the largest Australian consular operations ever. In total, 5164 Australians and their immediate dependants were evacuated by road and sea, and 4651 were brought back to Australia. This was an extraordinarily challenging undertaking, conducted in a war zone 15 000 km from Australia without access to significant Australian military assets.

The Lebanon operation underlined the importance of Australians paying heed to the department’s travel advice, weighing travel risks carefully and having realistic expectations of the consular services that the department and Australian missions overseas can provide. Communicating these issues to Australians will remain a priority for the department.

The department’s capacity to respond rapidly and effectively to consular crises was further enhanced with the completion of a new $2.9 million Crisis Centre. The Centre was funded under the four-year $73.8 million Consular Enhancement Program (CEP) announced in the 2006–07 Budget. It was activated for the first time following the Garuda Flight 200 crash in March 2007.

In April 2007, Mr Downer launched the new four-year $13.1 million smartraveller information campaign aimed at promoting the department’s consular and travel advice services and helping Australians make well-informed travel decisions. In 2006–07, we upgraded our smartraveller website to make it easier to read and to subscribe to travel advisories.

The department’s travel advice provided Australians with clear, current and practical information. We issued 872 travel advice updates for 160 destinations and created new travel advisories for eight additional destinations.

The department strengthened Australia’s consular network in 2006–07 through the CEP-funded recruitment of 37 additional consular staff in Canberra and at Australian missions overseas. We posted new Regional Consular Officers to improve coverage in regions where Australia’s consular presence had been less concentrated.

The department worked with other government agencies and Australian missions overseas to refine crisis management procedures and contingency plans.

Strengthening our consular network

At 30 June 2007, Australians had access to consular services in 170 locations around the world:

The department’s 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre (CEC) and Watch Office and our system of on-call Canberra-based consular duty officers complemented Australia’s extensive consular network. The CEC provided a direct and permanently staffed point of contact for Australians overseas in need of consular assistance. The Watch Office also supported the public, and Australian and foreign government clients with timely advice on passport issues. In addition it monitored international developments likely to affect the welfare of Australians overseas. Consular duty officers were on-call on a 24-hour basis to manage larger-scale or complex consular incidents and crises, and to update travel advice at short notice.

In 2006–07, the department improved the quality, coverage and depth of Australia’s consular network through the recruitment of 21 additional consular officers in Canberra and a further 16 locally engaged consular staff at Australian missions overseas. We posted seven extra officers to new, dedicated consular positions at our missions overseas. These included the department’s first Regional Consular Officers (RCOs)—based in Santiago and Mexico City—to improve consular coverage in regions where Australia’s consular presence has been less concentrated. The consular staffing expansion was among the department’s first initiatives under the CEP.

Assisting Australians overseas

With more Australians travelling overseas, demand for consular services continued to grow. Several large crises contributed to that growth. In 2006–07, consular staff provided assistance to Australians in difficulty in 33 927 cases and in 169 countries, compared to 17 505 in 170 countries the previous year. At any one time, the department was managing around 1300 consular cases, up from less than 1000 in 2005–06.

In response to continued strong media interest and increased expectations of the department’s capacity to provide consular assistance, we prepared approximately 1000 sets of media talking points on consular issues. Demand for notarial services also grew, with 135 347 notarial acts performed, a 17 per cent increase on the previous year.

In 2006–07, more Australians looked to consular staff to help resolve complex problems in remote and often politically unstable locations, where medical infrastructure and local rescue capabilities were limited and where legal systems were different from those in Australia. Departmental officials often went to extraordinary lengths to assist Australians in difficulty. In December 2006, our ambassador to Iraq travelled to northern Iraq at considerable personal risk to press for the release of an Australian who had been held in custody without charge since late 2004. The Australian was subsequently freed and the department organised a plane to take him to Dubai ahead of his return to Australia.

In May 2007, our ambassador to Egypt travelled to a remote part of southern Sudan to support an imprisoned and gravely ill Australian facing the death penalty after a wrongful conviction for murder. The ambassador’s representations were critical in having the Australian’s conviction annulled and in ensuring that he received essential medical attention.

Consular staff placed a very high priority on pursuing reports of Australians missing overseas. We worked to protect the welfare of at-risk and vulnerable Australians. We helped a number of Australian women overseas, in abusive relationships or under pressure to enter marriages against their will, to return to Australia. We supported efforts to secure the return of Australian children taken overseas in custody disputes, where their return was the subject of court orders. Consular staff helped many Australians overseas suffering from mental illness, often in countries with poor mental health services, by working closely with families and medical authorities to ensure their safe return to appropriate care in Australia. In exceptional cases, the department provided loans to cover emergency needs of Australians overseas with no alternative financial sources.

The dedication of consular staff and the priority given by the department to providing a high-quality consular service is balanced with a realistic understanding of the limits of the department’s capacity to assist Australians overseas—particularly in dangerous environments where we strongly and clearly advised against travel and in cases where Australians have committed serious crimes overseas. Communicating the legal and practical constraints on our ability to help Australians in difficulty is an ongoing and significant challenge.

Photo - See caption below for description
Ambassador to Turkey, Ms Jean Dunn, with a young evacuee from Lebanon at the port of Mersin in Turkey. Photo: Stuart Clarke
Enlarge image :: Photo gallery

The department supported Australians detained overseas through attendance at judicial proceedings and regular consular visits. Consular staff paid close attention to the physical and emotional welfare of Australian minors and young people in prison, and were robust in their efforts to assist Australians facing the death penalty. We made repeated representations to underline the Government’s strong opposition to the application of the death penalty in these cases and appealed for clemency. In 2006–07, the death sentence of an Australian in China was suspended and that of an Australian in Vietnam commuted to life imprisonment. At the same time, the department continued to emphasise to Australians the risks of breaking the law overseas, and the heavy penalties which applied, particularly in relation to drug offences.

Senior departmental consular officials led formal consultations with Chinese and Vietnamese counterparts under the Australia–China and Australia–Vietnam Consular Agreements. In addition to exchanges on specific consular cases, the consultations enhanced cooperation on the general management of consular cases by host governments and consular officials, especially in relation to dual nationals.

The department’s delivery of consular services, particularly in locations where Australia does not have an official presence, was advanced by our ongoing close practical cooperation with Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. Australia and Canada provided consular services to the other’s nationals in select locations under our long-standing bilateral Consular Sharing Agreement.

Responding to and preparing for consular crises

2006–07 was a significant year for the department in consular crisis management.

Photo - See caption below for description
The department’s new Crisis Centre in operation for the first time following the crash of Garuda Flight 200 in Yogyakarta, March 2007.
Enlarge image :: Photo gallery

In July and August 2006, the department led the Government’s operation to evacuate and repatriate Australians from Lebanon—one of the largest ever Australian consular operations. In total, the department in cooperation with other agencies organised the evacuation from Lebanon by road and sea of 5164 Australians and immediate dependants. Of these, 4651 were repatriated to Australia. This was an extraordinarily challenging undertaking, conducted in a war zone 15 000 km from Australia without access to significant Australian military assets.

Although the Lebanon operation was focused largely in Beirut and areas in Lebanon north of the Litani River, we gave particular attention to the welfare of Australians caught by the conflict in southern Lebanon. The department’s Crisis Centre, our embassies in Beirut and Tel Aviv, and our other missions and officials overseas coordinated with foreign governments, the UN, the ICRC and private transport providers in Lebanon to organise and assist land and sea evacuation of Australians from southern Lebanon. We worked closely with the Australian Lebanese community to facilitate their efforts to send transport to collect stranded Australians. Consular officials from the department were deployed on ships chartered by third countries which evacuated Australians from Tyre in southern Lebanon. The Emergency Response Team (ERT) to Beirut also travelled to southern Lebanon to lead two road convoys from Sidon and Tyre to Beirut. The convoys evacuated 45 Australians.

The department also provided assistance in response to a number of other crises overseas involving civil unrest, natural disasters and significant transport incidents. We activated our Crisis Centre and Emergency Call Unit and led ERTs overseas in response to the November 2006 civil unrest in Tonga, the December 2006 coup in Fiji, and the March 2007 crash of Garuda Flight 200 in Yogyakarta, in which 21 people lost their lives including five Australians. Four other Australians were injured.

The Lebanon evacuation

The Government’s operation to evacuate and repatriate Australians from Lebanon during the July–August 2006 conflict was one of its largest ever consular operations. Key facts and figures for the operation include:

  • 25 000 Australians estimated in Lebanon at the start of conflict on 13 July
  • 5164 Australians and immediate dependants evacuated from Lebanon with assistance from the Government
  • 4651 Australians and immediate dependants returned to Australia with assistance from the Government
  • around 1250 third-country nationals evacuated from Lebanon with assistance from the Government
  • 2 bus evacuations to Jordan organised by the Government
  • 16 voyages made on 6 ferries chartered by the Government from Beirut to Larnaca in Cyprus and Mersin in Turkey
  • 15 flights made on aircraft chartered by the Government to repatriate evacuated Australians
  • 3 department-led Emergency Response Teams deployed—to Beirut, Larnaca and Mersin
  • 93 department officials and around 240 officials from other Government agencies deployed overseas, including to Damascus, Amman, Ankara and Frankfurt
  • 356 department officials and over 550 officials from other Government agencies assigned to crisis management in Canberra
  • 189 department officials and over 200 Centrelink officials assigned to call centre duties
  • 35 993 calls taken and around 15 000 outward calls made by department and Centrelink officials
  • over 10 080 hours worked in Canberra on crisis management by department officials
  • 36 days of continuous operation of the department’s Crisis Centre—14 July to 18 August
  • $33.57 million—total cost of operation.
Photo - See caption below for description
An Inter-Departmental Task Force meeting in the department’s new Scully Room following the crash of Garuda Flight 200 in Yogyakarta, March 2007.
Enlarge image :: Photo gallery

In 2006–07, the department’s capacity to respond rapidly and effectively to consular crises was enhanced with the completion of a new $2.9 million Crisis Centre, which was activated for the first time following the Garuda Flight 200 crash.

To improve whole of government crisis management, the department worked with other agencies to draw on the lessons learnt from recent significant consular events. We reviewed the consular contingency plans of 60 Australian missions overseas and provided guidance to missions on best practice for planning and exercising their plans. Departmental officers and Australian Defence Force personnel jointly led six Contingency Planning Assessment Team visits to 11 countries to test contingency plans in regions with a higher risk of significant consular incidents.

The department and relevant missions jointly developed event-specific contingency plans for three events attended by large numbers of Australians: the 2007 Anzac Day commemorations in Turkey; the Cricket World Cup in the Caribbean; and the America’s Cup in Spain. For Anzac Day and the Cricket World Cup, the department deployed supplementary consular staff to provide consular assistance and placed ERTs on stand-by.

 

New Crisis Centre

Following the marked increase in consular crises directly affecting Australians overseas since 9/11, the department decided in 2005–06 to renovate and expand its Crisis Centre. Officially opened by Mr Downer on 26 March 2007, the new $2.9 million Crisis Centre in the R G Casey Building is the focal point for whole of government responses to consular crises overseas. We activated the Centre for the first time on 7 March 2007 following the crash of Garuda Flight 200 in Yogyakarta.

Funded under the four-year $73.8 million Consular Enhancement Program and completed on schedule, the Crisis Centre is a custom-built facility and among the best foreign ministry crisis management centres in the world. It is maintained in a constant state of readiness and is able to support the management of two simultaneous crises on a 24-hour basis.

The new Crisis Centre co-locates, for the first time, the principal Canberra-based elements of the department’s crisis response machinery:

  • the Crisis Response Centre, a central hub for crisis management—including expanded accommodation for liaison officers from other government agencies
  • the 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre
  • the Emergency Call Unit, activated to manage large volumes of calls from the public during crises
  • the Case Management Unit, where consular staff manage cases of individual Australians for whom there are specific concerns
  • the Scully Room, where the department chairs Interdepartmental Emergency Task Force meetings
  • a secondary Crisis Response Centre that can be activated to manage a simultaneous crisis.

The new Crisis Centre has enhanced our capacity to respond rapidly and effectively to consular crises, and has improved our ability to lead coordinated whole of government crisis management.

Keeping Australians informed

The department’s travel advisory system provided Australians with clear, current and practical information about most destinations that Australians visit, enabling them to make informed decisions about overseas travel. We maintained very close liaison with the National Threat Assessment Centre (NTAC) to ensure travel advice was supported by the best available assessment of threats. We also shared information on travel advice and possible emerging crises in weekly consultations with Australia’s consular partners.

The department created new travel advisories for eight destinations—Austria, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, Malta, Portugal, Romania and Switzerland. We issued 872 travel advice updates for 160 destinations, an increase from the 499 updates issued in 2005–06. We ensured that our travel advice to Lebanon was current and timely throughout the 2006 conflict.

We also issued new travel bulletins about a number of major issues, events and incidents—including the Lebanon evacuation operation, the New South Wales general election, the Haj, Anzac Day in Turkey, the Cricket World Cup in the Caribbean, and the Enhanced Airport and Air Travel Security Requirements.

The smartraveller.gov.au website, which this year recorded 20 554 274 page-views, was the department’s principal vehicle for delivering travel advice to Australians. In 2006–07, we upgraded the website, making it easier to read and easier to subscribe to travel advice. The smartraveller travel advice subscription service, which had 68 205 subscribers at 30 June 2007, allowed users to receive new or updated travel advisories and bulletins via email the moment they were published on the smartraveller website. The automated smartraveller telephone service, received 28 158 calls in 2006–07, making travel advice available to Australians without internet access.

In 2006–07, the department established the smartraveller registration help line to assist those seeking to register their travel details. We maintained a suite of 16 consular information publications—including a number in six community languages. These publications continued to generate strong public interest, with 1.6 million printed copies distributed.

In April 2007, Mr Downer launched a new smartraveller information campaign. Building on the first smartraveller information program launched in 2003, the new four-year $13.1 million campaign uses television, print and multimedia to promote the department’s key travel advice messages to help Australians make informed travel decisions and consider travel risks. Following the campaign launch, new travel registrations increased from an average of less than 1200 per week to over 6750 per week.

The department maintained a close relationship with the Australian Federation of Travel Agents (AFTA), and in 2006–07 began using the AFTA web-mail and bulletin service to promote travel advice and other smartraveller messages to the travel industry. The industry continued to support smartraveller through membership of the Charter for Safe Travel. Members of the Charter for Safe Travel promote the smartraveller message to their customers. Charter membership grew from 2550 at 30 June 2006 to 2598 at 30 June 2007. To further promote the Charter for Safe Travel and the smartraveller campaign, the department maintained its dialogue with the smartraveller Consultative Group (SCG), which consists of key travel industry representatives. We also participated in a number of travel expos and travel industry events to increase public and travel industry awareness of smartraveller.

Client service charter

The department uses a range of mechanisms to obtain and monitor feedback on the consular assistance and travel advice it provides to the Australian public in accordance with our Consular Services Charter.

Comments can be provided by completing a consular feedback form which is available on the smartraveller website. Independent research conducted in the previous year as part of the smartraveller initiative confirmed that the campaign motivated increasing numbers of Australians to access the department’s travel advice before they depart Australia. During 2006–07 the department continued to monitor the feedback it received through the website and in correspondence from the public. The information received helps the department to further improve its consular services.

Outlook

The department expects that in 2007–08, Australians will travel abroad in increasing numbers, and that crises and significant incidents overseas will affect the welfare of Australians. Supporting Australians overseas—including through a world-class consular service, practical contingency planning and rapid crisis response—will continue to be a high priority for the department.

We will focus on further educating Australians about the importance of making informed travel choices, avoiding risky behaviour and destinations, and having realistic expectations of the consular services the department can provide.

The department will consolidate and further improve the systems in place to assist Australians overseas and manage consular crises—including through the four-year $73.8 million Consular Enhancement Program (CEP) announced in the 2006–07 Budget. CEP initiatives for the coming year include:

The department will begin using a new facility to provide emergency assistance to minors and other vulnerable Australians overseas who have no means of support and in circumstances where all other means of assistance have been exhausted. Funded by a $200 000 per year allocation announced in the 2007–08 Budget, this facility will be used to manage exceptional situations overseas, such as hospitalisation or medical evacuations for life-threatening illnesses or injuries.

TABLE 11. CONSULAR SERVICES PROVIDED TO AUSTRALIAN TRAVELLERS
 
2002–03
2003–04
2004–05
2005–06
2006–07
Australian travellers1
3 429 960
4 080 300
4 745 540
5 000 860
5 300 830
Cases of Australians hospitalised given general welfare and guidance
864
666
638
819
1 093
Cases of Australians evacuated to another location for medical purposes
203
81
167
82
67
Cases of next of kin of Australians who died overseas given guidance or assistance with disposal of remains
681
547
642
811
912
Cases of Australians having difficulty arranging their own return to Australia given guidance and assistance
109
66
1 599
68
5 2092
Inquiries made about Australians overseas who could not be contacted by their next of kin
5 767
711
16 5453
8 457
13 0254
Cases of Australians arrested overseas
649
728
736
752
934
Number of Australians in prison overseas (as at 30 June)
184
215
166
291
1885
Cases of Australians given general welfare and guidance
10 129
9 478
6 283
6 225
12 3856
Total number of cases involving Australians in difficulty
19 196
12 946
25 731
17 505
33 927
Notarial acts7
73 514
87 545
100 851
115 418
135 347
Total number of cases of Australians provided with consular assistance
92 710
100 491
126 582
132 923
169 274
Australians in financial difficulty who were lent public funds to cover immediate needs (travellers emergency loans)
610
454
395
393
301

1. This figure draws on ABS data and includes permanent departures, long-term departures and short-term departures of Australian residents.
2. This figure includes the 4651 Australians and immediate dependants whose evacuation from Lebanon and repatriation was organised by the Government, 513 Australians and immediate dependants whose evacuation from Lebanon was organised by the Government but did not require assistance to return to Australia, and 45 other cases not related to the Lebanon conflict.
3. This figure includes tsunami-related whereabouts inquiries (15 178).
4. This figure includes whereabouts inquiries (approximately 8000) in relation to Australians in Lebanon 13 July—18 August 2006 who did not require assistance from the Government to evacuate.
5. The total number of cases of Australians in prison during 2006-07 was 302.
6. Welfare and guidance figure includes the following sub-categories: assaults (224), theft (1915), welfare of children (146) and other welfare matters (6589) plus other welfare matters for Australians in Lebanon 13 July—18 August 2006 who did not require assistance from the Government to evacuate (3511).
7. Figures include notarial acts performed by overseas posts, Canberra and state and territory offices in Australia.

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