Annual Report 2007-2008

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


More Australians travelled overseas in the past year than at any previous time. The department provided them with a highly efficient and responsive consular service. To assist Australians prepare for overseas travel, we offered comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date travel advice and information for over 160 destinations. Our registration service, which enables us to find Australians in emergencies, was also heavily subscribed. Our case work in highly dangerous and remote areas grew as Australians continued to travel more widely.

Our ongoing investments in building our consular case and crisis management capacities enabled the department to respond quickly and effectively to more than 40 crises that put Australians in danger. The department developed or refined contingency plans for major events or high-risk scenarios including Anzac Day commemorations in Turkey, the Beijing Olympics and the possible breakdown of civil order in Zimbabwe. On a contingency basis, we deployed staff to manage these anticipated risks.

To provide Australians with comprehensive, current and accurate threat and general travel information (enabling them to avoid difficulties overseas), the department invested further resources in its travel advisory system. Our smartraveller public information campaign produced very good results in alerting Australians to the need to check travel advisories before travelling and the importance of registering their travel plans.

Consular services

At 30 June 2008, Australians had access to consular services in 169 locations around the world, through:

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The department’s Crisis Centre in operation.
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Australians also have access to consular services in the form of notarial services through the department’s state and territory offices in Adelaide, Brisbane, Darwin, Hobart and Perth, and through our passport offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

The department’s 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre (CEC) 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 emergency consular assistance. It received more than 45 000 telephone calls in 2007–08. The CEC supported the public and Australian and foreign governments with timely advice on passport issues and 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 and outside normal business hours.

In 2007–08, the department finalised the deployment of the remaining two of our new network of four Regional Consular Officers (RCOs), to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates and Pretoria, South Africa to improve consular coverage, particularly in regions where Australia’s consular presence has been less concentrated. The RCOs travelled to dangerous and remote places including in Iraq and Afghanistan to assist Australians in difficult circumstances. The RCO in Pretoria was deployed to our post in Nairobi, Kenya to provide additional consular support during the election unrest in December 2007 – January 2008, which included contacting Australians to ascertain their welfare and to provide consular assistance. The RCO was deployed to our post in Harare and surrounding countries during the year to provide contingency planning assistance and additional consular support in the lead-up to and during Zimbabwe’s elections.

The department’s delivery of consular services was enhanced by our close practical cooperation with Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

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Nigel Stanier
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Nigel Stanier

The varied nature of his work is what makes Nigel Stanier’s job as Deputy Head of Mission at the Australian Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, very appealing. One of his key tasks is to report on Turkish foreign policy and, given Turkey’s location next to Iran, Iraq and Georgia and its role as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East, there are always developments relevant to Australia’s interests to analyse.

Organising Anzac Day commemorations in Turkey is the most high-profile work the embassy in Ankara manages—and for Nigel, the 2008 commemorations were his first at post. This year, an estimated 10 000 people attended the commemorative ceremonies on the Gallipoli peninsula, and Australia’s close cooperation with the Turkish and New Zealand governments resulted in a highly successful event.

Preparations for the Anzac Day commemorations, including the program of Minister for Defence, Mr Joel Fitzgibbon, took a lot of planning, but in the end the visit worked well and the commemorations were a great success.





Assisting Australians overseas

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Mr Mauro Kolobaric, Director, Consular Operations B Section, facilitating the Consular and Passport Regional Training Workshop, for Australia-based and locally engaged consular staff from European posts, at the Australian Embassy in Berlin on 5 June 2008.
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The total number of overseas departures by Australian residents was 5 878 445, an increase of 577 615 over the past year. The past year also saw growth in demand for our consular services. In 2007–08, consular staff provided 184 992 consular services, compared to 169 274 in the previous year. The number of Australians affected by crises overseas declined in 2007–08. Australians, however, sought out consular services in greater numbers (see Table 11, page 181). Increased demand for notarial services in particular (a rise of 17.5 per cent from the previous year) constituted much of the growth in the total number of consular services provided. On average, the department actively manages as many as 1450 consular cases at any one time, responding to requests for assistance with welfare issues, whereabouts enquiries, arrest or detention matters, deaths and medical emergencies.

The department faced an ongoing and significant challenge to explain the legal and practical constraints on our ability to assist Australians in difficulty overseas. The department prepared 757 sets of media talking points on consular matters. This compared with 1000 sets of media talking points prepared in 2006–07 (which included the extended crisis in Lebanon).

The department’s caseload was highly diverse and complex, often involving cases in remote and politically unstable locations with limited medical infrastructure and rescue capabilities, and legal systems unfamiliar to most Australians. For example, in May 2008 an Australian man was arrested in a remote part of northern India after inadvertently crossing the border from Nepal. Consular officials from New Delhi travelled to the area, attended his court hearings and helped to secure necessary medical treatment for him until he was released after the charges were dropped.

Consular staff provided intensive support to 1249 Australians arrested or imprisoned overseas, regardless of the nature of their charges or crimes. We helped them access legal representation and consular staff attended their trials to ensure they were treated fairly, without discrimination and in accordance with local law. Australians imprisoned overseas received regular welfare visits from our consular staff to ensure their health and other basic needs were being met and their treatment was humane, within the limitations of the local prison system. Consular staff also helped Australian prisoners maintain contact with family in Australia. As at 30 June 2008, we had provided strong support to five Australians sentenced to death in Indonesia and Vietnam and made repeated representations—which are ongoing—supporting clemency in each case.

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Staff in the department’s Crisis Centre.
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We also assisted in child welfare cases, ensuring Australian children were removed from unsafe situations overseas and returned to the care of competent welfare authorities. We assisted 56 Australian women with child custody and abduction cases in the Middle East and North Africa.

In 2007–08, the department assisted the families of 994 Australians who died overseas and provided a high level of assistance to Australians suffering from acute physical or mental health conditions while travelling, often in countries where local services were poor. In many cases, including some where the person’s life was at risk, we arranged for Australians to be repatriated to Australia under medical escort.

Due to the increasing number of Australians travelling, working and studying overseas, the demand for notarial services grew, with 159 005 notarial acts performed, a 17.5 per cent increase on the previous year.

Senior departmental officials led formal consultations with Chinese counterparts under the Australia–China Consular Agreement. The consultations enhanced cooperation on the general management of consular cases and provided a valuable opportunity to discuss consular arrangements for the Olympic Games in Beijing.

Responding to and preparing for consular crises

The challenges of the international security environment, civil unrest, natural disasters and tragic accidents all tested the department’s crisis response mechanisms and day-to-day consular systems.

While there were no crises involving Australians that warranted the activation of the full-scale departmental Crisis Centre, we did respond to more than 40 crisis situations that affected or had the potential to affect Australians overseas. These events included the cyclone in Burma, the earthquake in southern China, election unrest in Kenya and the budget airline crash in Phuket, Thailand. Our responses demonstrated the efficiency of our systems and processes. In the case of the crises in Kenya, Burma and China, we efficiently contacted more than 1400 Australians in these crisis zones to confirm their welfare, offer consular assistance, manage cases of need, advise of risks and provide guidance on risk mitigation. Flexible staffing arrangements, including through deploying our Regional Consular Officers to crisis areas, enabled us to respond effectively to such emergency situations.

In 2007–08, the department consolidated its crisis management capabilities by strengthening contingency planning and preparedness. We introduced a new template for posts’ contingency plans to make them more practical and to enable posts to react more effectively to crisis situations. We reviewed the consular contingency plans of 64 Australian posts overseas and provided guidance to missions on best practice.

Departmental officers and Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel jointly led seven Contingency Planning Assessment Team visits to 12 countries to validate and improve contingency plans in regions with a higher risk of significant consular incidents. These included Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Lebanon, the Philippines, India, Nepal, Egypt, China, Hong Kong, Republic of Korea and Japan. The department and relevant missions jointly developed event-specific contingency plans for a number of events attended by large numbers of Australians: the 2008 Anzac Day commemorations in Turkey; the 2008 Anzac Day commemorations in Villers-Bretonneux; the Rugby World Cup in Europe; and the Beijing Olympics. For Anzac Day, the department deployed supplementary staff to provide assistance.

Portable communications system for emergency response teams

In response to the Bali bombing in 2002 and a marked increase in large-scale crises involving conflict, civil unrest, natural disasters and accidents, the department formalised department-led Emergency Response Teams (ERTs). These multi-agency teams are deployed at short notice to assist Australians overseas. The capacity of the ERTs to support crisis-affected Australians was greatly enhanced by our design and acquisition in 2007–08 of four fully self-contained unclassified communications systems suitable for use anywhere in the world.

With this equipment, consular officers have real-time access to the consular, passport and other departmental systems they need when dealing with a crisis remote from a diplomatic mission. The system provides phone and unclassified computer capability and can be powered by two 2kVA generators. It fits into air-transportable boxes, can be loaded by two people into the back of a single van and is functioning within a matter of a few hours once it reaches its destination.

The kits will be available for deployment from Canberra, Washington and London, keeping transport time to consular hotspots to a minimum.

We tested whole-of-government plans to ensure Australia is well prepared for potential crises overseas. The department participated in ADF exercises in New South Wales and Queensland which focused on evacuation handling procedures that would apply in any general evacuation of Australians from overseas trouble spots. We conducted policy discussions with insurance companies, Australian airlines and large Australian companies that regularly deploy staff overseas to improve coordination of our crisis management and contingency planning arrangements. A number of our missions overseas conducted their own crisis management exercises or participated in exercises organised with consular partners or local authorities, for example in the Netherlands, Italy, New Caledonia and the United States.

Under the four-year Consular Enhancement Program announced in the 2006-07 Budget, we rolled out a number of new training programs on contingency planning and crisis management to enhance the skills of our overseas staff. We conducted training courses for departmental staff and liaison officers from other departments to prepare them for work in the departmental Crisis Centre. We updated the Crisis Centre Operations Handbook and upgraded the IT and audiovisual capabilities of the centre to ensure it is appropriately equipped to meet our crisis response needs.

Keeping Australians informed

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The smartraveller public information campaign is an effective way to alert Australians to the importance of checking travel advisories and registering their travel plans before departing overseas.
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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 (United States, United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand).

We monitored international developments and updated travel advice as required—providing current assessments and practical advice based on changing safety and security environments. Overall, the department provided 1165 updates to travel advisories in its total suite of 165 titles, a 33 per cent increase on the 872 updates issued in 2006–07. For example, the advice for Pakistan was updated 37 times, Lebanon 33, Afghanistan 25, Kenya 26 and India 25 times. A new travel advisory was created for Kosovo when the Australian Government recognised its independence from Serbia. Tracking research undertaken to assess the effectiveness of the smartraveller campaign showed that 82 per cent of respondents assessed that smartraveller (the travel advice system) should be accessed by all travellers as part of their travel preparations. More than 39 per cent of departing travellers reported having accessed the travel advisories at some point.

We issued new travel bulletins about a number of major issues, events and incidents—including the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, Anzac Day in Turkey, Anzac Day in France, Ramadan, the Haj to Mecca, the Danish religious cartoon controversy and the release of a similarly themed film by Dutch politician Geert Wilders, the introduction of new passport application forms and information about international scams. The bulletin on avian influenza was updated regularly. To assist in the provision of voting facilities overseas, we issued new travel bulletins on the 2007 federal election, the May 2008 Tasmanian legislative council elections and the June 2008 Gippsland by-election

Under the department’s smartraveller campaign, television advertisements were broadcast in August, November and June to help Australians make informed travel decisions and properly consider risks. The campaign promoted key safe travel messages: register travel details, subscribe to receive travel advice and take out travel insurance.

The smartraveller website recorded 24.3 million page-views in 2007–08. This is an increase of 18 per cent on 2006–07. The smartraveller travel advice subscription service had 64 500 subscribers at 30 June 2008. The service enabled users to receive updated travel advisories and bulletins via email the moment they were published on the smartraveller website. Travel registrations increased from an average of 4872 per week in 2006–07 to a weekly average of more than 7300 in 2007–08, representing a 50 per cent increase (see box below).

The automated smartraveller telephone service, which received 13 398 calls in 2007–08, made travel advice available to Australians without internet access.

In 2007–08, the department upgraded its suite of 14 consular information publications (with some translated into six community languages). These generated strong public interest with almost 1.7 million copies distributed with each new passport, through the smartraveller website, travel agents, travel expos, state and territory offices and public presentations. Research commissioned to assess the effectiveness of the consular publications in meeting the needs of travellers will guide the future delivery of consular information to the public.

The department maintained a close relationship with the travel industry to promote travel advice and other smartraveller messages. The travel industry supported smartraveller through membership of the Charter for Safe Travel. Members of the Charter promote smartraveller to their customers. Charter membership is currently at 2621 accounting for 93 per cent of travel agents registered with Australian Federation of Travel Agents. To promote further the Charter for Safe Travel and the smartraveller campaign, the department continued its dialogue with the smartraveller Consultative Group, which consists of key travel industry representatives. The department conducted outreach activities with travel agents that service communities from non-English speaking backgrounds. We participated in travel expos and travel industry events in all Australian capital cities to increase public and travel industry awareness of smartraveller.

The department initiated a targeted community outreach strategy to raise awareness of the dangers of overseas drug trafficking. One of the key outcomes will be a grassroots public awareness campaign developed in close consultation with community representatives.

Online registration service

Australians can register their travel and contact details on the department’s online registration service when they are travelling overseas. The service enables the department to make contact with consular clients in an emergency and render assistance if required.

Encouraging Australians to register is a key message of the current phase of the smartraveller campaign. In our travel advisories, bulletins and all consular publications we emphasise the benefits of registering. Print and TV advertisements have also been aired in 2007 and 2008, with marked success.

In 2006–07, an average of 694 people registered each day. When smartraveller advertisements first went to air in April 2007, registration levels increased dramatically and have spiked significantly with each advertising burst.

In 2007–08, daily registrations increased by close to 50 per cent, averaging 1049 per day. Following the airing of advertisements in June 2008, registration levels reached the highest daily and weekly rates to date, recording 3282 per day and 18 697 per week.

The benefits of the registration service were evident in the aftermath of the Burma cyclone and earthquake in southern China in the first half of 2008. Following the earthquake there was a sharp increase in registrations of Australians in China (up nearly six-fold). Registrations also rose in Burma following the cyclone. In each case, the department was able to use the data from the register to locate all registered Australians and confirm they were safe and did not require consular assistance.

The registration data were also particularly useful in our contingency planning for Zimbabwe during the election period. The data detailed the number and location of Australians in Zimbabwe and were used by our embassy in Harare to contact Australians to check on their welfare and their future travel plans. This gave an accurate picture of the level and nature of consular response required should the security situation deteriorate.



Client service charter

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As part of the Consular Enhancement Program, the first portable communications equipment for use by Emergency Response Teams was successfully tested on 4 February 2008. L–R: Mr Michael Gardiner, technical officer, Systems and Network Development Section; Mr Bassim Blazey, the then Assistant Secretary, Consular Policy Branch; Ms Beverly Mercer, Director, Crisis Management and Contingency Planning Section; Ms Desi Fielding, Project Manager, Consular Assistance Information System; Mr Martin Hamilton, UXC; Mr Colin Green, Project Director, Consular Assistance Information System and Mr Norman Ashley, Project Officer, Application Development Section.
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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 available on the smartraveller website. During 2007–08, the department closely monitored the feedback it received through the website and in correspondence from the public. The majority of feedback sought clarification regarding the scope of consular services to which Australians were entitled. This feedback contributes to improvements made by the department to its consular services.


While there may be short-term variations to Australians’ international travel patterns due to changing security or economic conditions, the department expects underlying strong growth in traveller numbers, and therefore in demand for consular services, to continue. Key indicators, such as the rise in the number of Australian passports issued, support our planning for expanding demand. Natural disasters, political crises and an uncertain international security environment will contribute to our consular workload for the foreseeable future. We also expect that our case work will continue to include many that are complex and difficult to resolve, such as death-sentence cases and cases involving children and women at risk.

To address these challenges the department will, in addition to meeting its ongoing consular case load, focus on three sets of priorities.

Public information and risk mitigation

Through the smartraveller campaign and our travel advisories, we will continue to educate Australians about the importance of making informed travel choices, avoiding risky behaviour and dangerous destinations, and having realistic expectations of the consular services the department can provide. In 2008–09, the department will analyse campaign tracking, focus group research and consular case trends to plan for a new outreach strategy that will refresh the current campaign and address emerging public information needs.

Consolidating the enabling environment

We will continue to implement the Consular Enhancement Program by finalising and rolling-out consular training for Emergency Response Teams (ERT). We will assess and refine current consular training modules to ensure a durable platform for sustaining and further developing core and specialist consular skills.

We will commence the second phase of acquisition of ERT remote and roaming equipment to enable ERTs to establish—within short time frames and independently from any local infrastructure—temporary consular offices with sophisticated communication systems in remote locations.

We will continue to develop an electronic case management system to facilitate exchanges of information on consular case and crisis management—especially with ERTs in remote locations and with other agencies, such as Centrelink Call Centres, in the event of a crisis.

Contingency planning and preparedness

We will progressively develop new format Consular Contingency Plans for all posts in 2008–09, which will provide for more effective and efficient responses to a range of risk scenarios. DFAT–Defence Consular Contingency Planning Assessment Team (CPAT) visits to posts will build improved crisis response skills including through training exercises.

Australian resident departures1
4 080 300
4 745 540
5 000 860
5 300 830
5 878 445
Cases of Australians hospitalised given general welfare and guidance
1 093
1 260
Cases of Australians evacuated to another location for medical purposes
Cases of next of kin of Australians who died overseas given guidance or assistance with disposal of remains
Cases of Australians having difficulty arranging their own return to Australia given guidance and assistance
1 599
5 209
Inquiries made about Australians overseas who could not be contacted by their next of kin
16 545
8 457
13 025
13 5982
Cases of Australians arrested overseas
Cases of Australians in prison overseas (as at 30 June)
Cases of Australians given general welfare and guidance
9 478
6 283
6 225
12 385
8 4054
Total number of cases involving Australians in difficulty
12 946
25 731
17 505
33 927
25 987
Notarial acts5
87 545
100 851
115 418
135 347
159 005
Total number of cases of Australians provided with consular assistance
100 491
126 582
132 923
169 274
184 992
Australians in financial difficulty who were lent public funds to cover immediate needs (travellers emergency loans)

1 This figure draws on ABS data and includes permanent departures, long term departures and short term departures of Australian residents. It includes Australian citizens (4 967 991) and other residents (910 454), who reside in Australia on a permanent or temporary basis.
2 This figure includes inter alia whereabouts inquiries in crises in China (3420), Lebanon (3277), Turkey (2269), Zimbabwe (1469), Kenya (1002) and Thailand (629).
3 The total number of cases of Australians in prison during 2007–08 was 279. Two figures are provided for Australians in prison. ‘Cases of Australians in prison overseas’ is the total number of cases assisted throughout 2007–08. Some of these cases may have been resolved during that year. The ‘Number of Australians in prison at 30 June’ is a ‘snapshot’ of the Australian overseas prisoner population on 30 June 2008.
4 Welfare and guidance figure includes the following sub-categories: assaults (220), theft (1840), welfare of children (200) and other welfare matters (6145).
5 Figure includes notarial acts performed by overseas posts, in Canberra and state and territory offices in Australia.

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