Australian Government - Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Advancing the interests of Australia and Australians internationally

Australian Government - Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Advancing the interests of Australia and Australians internationally



OUTCOME 2: The protection and welfare of Australians abroad and access to secure international travel documentation through timely and responsive travel advice and consular and passport services in Australia and overseas

Program 2.1: Consular services

Program 2.1 Objective

  • To protect the welfare of Australians abroad by supporting and assisting Australian travellers and Australians overseas through high-quality consular services, including timely travel advice, practical contingency planning and rapid crisis response.

Program 2.1 Deliverables

  • High-quality consular services to an increasing number of Australian travellers and Australian citizens living overseas, including notarial services and assistance with welfare issues, whereabouts inquiries, arrest or detention matters, deaths, medical emergencies and payment of travellers emergency loans to Australians in need.
  • High-quality travel advisory services, including issuing up-to-date travel information on travel destinations, promotion of this information through the successful Smartraveller campaign using various media and travel-oriented networks, and management of an online travel registration service.
  • Effective consular contingency planning for major events or high-risk scenarios, including through regular reviews of procedures and available resources, training of staff, and coordination with other government agencies and foreign governments.
  • Coordination of whole-of-government responses to large-scale crises involving conflict, civil unrest, natural disasters or tragic accidents.

Program 2.1 Key performance indicators

  • The department’s delivery of consular services is effective, efficient, timely and responsive, and within the scope of Australian Government responsibility.
  • The department’s travel advisory services are up-to-date, accurate, responsive and effective in reaching a broad audience and encouraging a greater awareness of potential risks and the extent of Australian Government assistance, and
  • public use of the online registration service and Smartraveller website continues to grow.
  • Consular contingency planning accurately anticipates high-risk events and scenarios, the necessary resources for response are readily available, the procedures and networks remain valid and viable, and plans are tested and reviewed regularly to satisfaction.
  • Coordination of whole-of-government responses to large-scale crises is targeted, timely, consultative, resourceful and effective in maintaining the welfare of the maximum possible number of Australians involved.

Program 2.1. Consular services

Overview

Photo - See caption below for description
Australian embassy officials in Cairo organise the evacuation of Australians from Egypt during the civil unrest in 2011.

The numbers of Australians travelling overseas increased again in 2010–11 continuing the upward trend in demand for consular services. In the first three months of 2011, the department led whole-of-government responses to a series of international crises, with civil unrest in the Middle East, the earthquake in New Zealand and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The department worked closely with federal agencies to assist Australians affected by these crises, including families and friends in Australia. Additional staff were deployed in Canberra and overseas in support of these responses.

We used lessons learned from these crises to improve preparedness for major international incidents and to refine internal processes for staffing crisis responses. More broadly, the department continued its strong focus on contingency planning by leading inter-agency teams to assist posts with contingency planning in 10 countries and working closely with other Government agencies to prepare for major overseas events such as sporting events.

The smartraveller campaign remained a key tool to enable Australians to make informed decisions about their travel by providing accurate and up-to-date information on safety and security conditions in other countries. We maintained travel advisories on 165 destinations, disseminating information through the smartraveller website, our email subscription service, the travel industry and community groups. Social media were used to reach a wider audience.

Personal Profile:

Photo - See caption below for description
Nick McCaffrey

Nick McCaffrey

Managing the department’s Crisis Management and Contingency Planning Section has been a roller coaster ride over the past 18 months for Nick McCaffrey. The first 12 months presented smaller scale crises, such as the Moscow subway bombings and the Sundance plane accident in Africa. Then, in the first quarter of 2011, the section faced four major crises in Egypt, Christchurch, New Zealand, Libya and Japan.

“There was adrenalin, excitement and hard work in equal measure. Under considerable pressure, a lot of work was done quickly, thanks to the willing DFAT officers who threw themselves into the Crisis Centre and Emergency Call Unit.”

The Crisis Centre and Emergency Call Unit operate 24/7 during a crisis. Staff coordinate the government’s consular response and receive calls from concerned families and friends, both in Australia and overseas.

“From the late nights worked and meals shared in the crisis centre kitchen, a strong team spirit and bond developed between staff working on the crisis response to help Australians. I enjoyed that part of the work particularly, less so the lack of sleep.”

Consular services

On 30 June 2011, Australians had access to consular services around the world through:

  • 89 diplomatic and consular missions, one representative office and 46 consulates headed by honorary consuls managed by the department
  • 13 consular posts and three consulates headed by honorary consuls managed by Austrade
  • the Australian Commerce and Industry Office in Taipei
  • 20 Canadian diplomatic missions under Australia’s Consular Sharing Agreement with Canada.

We also provided access to notarial services in Australia through state and territory offices in Adelaide, Brisbane, Darwin, Hobart and Perth and passport offices in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Newcastle.

Australians were able to access consular services through the extensive overseas consular network or the 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre in Canberra. The centre received 44 545 calls in 2010–11, up from 44 000 in 2009–10. The department used the network of Regional Consular Officers (RCOs) strategically to bolster consular capacity as needed in specific locations, including in response to major crises.

Assisting Australians overseas

In 2010–11, consular staff provided a total of 201 660 consular services compared to 186 235 in 2009–10. These services included 177 474 notarial acts and 24 186 cases involving Australians in difficulty. Consular cases continued to attract wide public and media interest.

Consular staff provided support to 313 Australians arrested or imprisoned overseas. This included attending trials and visiting Australians in custody or serving sentences and keeping families up to date on their welfare.

Helping to locate Australians overseas when their families held well-founded concern for their welfare was again a strong focus of consular work. In 2010–11, consular staff undertook 12 899 missing persons inquiries overseas, compared to 9310 in 2009–10. This increase reflected the number of enquiries about Australians potentially affected by crises in New Zealand, the Middle East and Japan.

We hosted annual consular consultations with China in Sydney in October 2010 and with Vietnam in Canberra in November 2010. The inaugural meeting of the Joint Consular Committee Australia–United Arab Emirates was held in Canberra in December 2010, following signature of a memorandum of understanding the previous year establishing the consultations. We also held the inaugural Australia–Indonesia Consular Consultations in Perth in June 2011. These bilateral mechanisms strengthen the department’s capacity to provide consular services to Australians in these countries.

Close practical cooperation with our consular partners Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States continues to extend the consular reach, particularly in locations where Australia does not have a consular presence.

Travellers emergency loans

The department used funds available through travellers emergency loans to provide $356 246 assistance to 345 Australians in 2010–11. This compares to loans issued in the previous year to 286 Australian travellers to the value of $320 456.

Loans were provided case-by-case following assessment of client needs and their ability to access alternative financial sources (including family in Australia). All loan recipients were required to sign legally-enforceable deeds of undertaking-to-repay, although loans are issued according to need, not according to clients’ capacity to repay.

Travellers emergency loans also include the Prisoner Loans Scheme, under which $66 001 was provided to 61 Australians imprisoned overseas for adequate food and other essentials when these are not provided by prison authorities.

In 2010–11, we continued efforts to improve loan recovery rates including rapid follow-up with debtors and offering different repayment options, such as instalments. The undertaking-to-repay that each loan recipient signs also links eligibility for a new passport to the repayment of an outstanding loan. Under this program, $136 564 was recovered from Australians who had been issued loans, compared to $196 447 in 2009–10.

Table 9. Travellers emergency loans

  2008–09 2009–10 2010–11
Number of Australian travellers assisted
by emergency loans
334 286 345
Amount recovered in debt recovery activities $181 789 $196 447 $136 564

Consular emergency services

Consular emergency services financial support was introduced in 2007–08 to enable payment of in-kind services to destitute Australians and minors and covering Australian paupers’ funeral costs when it is not practical or legally possible for an undertaking-to-repay to be signed. In 2010–11, the department granted payments of $41 692 to five Australian travellers under this mechanism.

Responding to and preparing for consular crises

Photo - See caption below for description
The Frankfurt Consular Assistance Team provided consular support to Australians who were evacuated from Cairo to Frankfurt in February 2011.
Back (L-R): Mark Rose, Ernie Edwards, Geert de Schaepmeester, David Higgins, Christine Duncan, Nicola Watkinson, Ruth Murdoch, Günter Schlothauer, Damien Miller, Jacqui Ashworth
Front (L-R): Scott Howlett, Tania Gerlach, Cathy Carter, Birgit Kühn, Sally Aplin (not pictured Richard Palk and Paul Morgan).

The coincidence of four major international crises affecting Australians occurring in quick succession, and in some cases overlapping, was the focus of crisis management in early 2011. Widespread civil unrest in Egypt and Libya, the devastating earthquake in Christchurch, and the catastrophic combination of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear incident in Japan affected many Australians.

The department led whole-of-government responses to provide consular support to affected Australians, both in the countries concerned and for those in Australia seeking to confirm the safety of friends and families. We first activated the department’s 24-hour Crisis Centre on 30 January 2011, to coordinate assistance to Australians affected by civil unrest in Egypt. The Crisis Centre operated almost continuously for 48 days until 28 March 2011 as we responded to events in Libya, New Zealand and Japan. At the peak of this period, there were around 120 staff members working on crisis response in Canberra over a 24-hour period. Over the period of the four crises, more than 26 000 calls were received from concerned friends and family and the department made a similar number of calls seeking to confirm the safety of Australians. Departmental staff confirmed the welfare of over 11 000 Australians or residents.

During this period, an additional 89 departmental officials were deployed overseas to support the government’s response and assist 400 Australians depart crisis areas. We worked closely with consular partners Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States and other countries, including Turkey and Jordan, during the unrest in the Middle East. Drawing on our strong consular relationship with Canada - codified by the Consular Sharing Agreement under which the countries provide consular assistance to each others’ citizens in certain countries - a number of Australians were evacuated by Canadian-arranged transport from Egypt and Libya. The department also worked with UK colleagues to facilitate departure of Australians from Egypt and Libya on British flights and vessels. In addition, two flights were chartered from Qantas to evacuate Australian and other nationals from Egypt.

As part of our role in leading whole-of-government responses, the department worked with other federal and state government agencies to coordinate the provision of expertise to Japan and New Zealand, including urban search and rescue staff and equipment, police officers, field hospitals, medical teams, relief supplies, military transport and other humanitarian assistance.

Underpinning the response to these four crises were reforms implemented to internal crisis management processes and Crisis Centre staffing. We continued to fine-tune these processes throughout 2010–11, drawing on lessons learned during each crisis. Tailored crisis response training was held for more than 100 staff in Canberra and regional consular training workshops were conducted in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East.

Funded by the Consular Enhancement Program, there is now a number of staff trained to use consular emergency communications kits for deployment at short notice in crisis situations.

Work continued on a new consular management information system to support consular services to travelling Australians. This project had experienced significant delays due to software development issues, but work will continue on an alternative system in 2011–12.

Japan: crisis response

A 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck north-east Japan 400 kilometres from Tokyo and 130 kilometres east of Sendai at 2.46 pm local time (4.46 pm Canberra time) on Friday 11 March 2011. A subsequent tsunami of up to 10 metres high struck the east coast of Japan, causing immense damage. The following day, explosions were reported at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

As the scope of the disaster became quickly evident, we activated the department’s Crisis Centre, which was operational by 6.00 pm Canberra time the same day.

The embassy in Tokyo immediately activated its crisis plan and sought to confirm the safety and welfare of Australians in affected areas. The department instructed all its missions in the inner and outer Pacific rim to contact registered Australians and advise them of the Pacific-wide tsunami warning.

The Crisis Centre operated on a 24-hour basis until 10.00 pm on 28 March, coordinating the whole-of-government response including through the embassy and consulates in Japan. More than 400 officers worked on the crisis response in Canberra, which included answering and making calls in the Emergency Call Unit.

Despite severe disruption to communications networks in Japan, over 11 000 calls were received and departmental staff confirmed the safety of some 5550 Australians, including almost 400 in the most affected zone.

We deployed a total of 39 officers to Tokyo from Canberra and regional posts, along with four Centrelink counsellors, three Austrade officials and three officials from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Staff were deployed from Tokyo to Narita and Kansai airports and the worst affected areas in Sendai and Minamisanriku. At peak periods during the crisis, we maintained 24-hour operations at the embassy and Narita airport.

We maintained regular contact with Qantas and Jetstar airlines to confirm availability of seats for Australians wishing to depart Japan. Staff in Tokyo were authorised to provide emergency loans to Australians who wished to leave but faced financial difficulties in doing so. Over 80 emergency passports were issued without charge.

The travel advice for Japan was the principal channel for communicating information on evolving events and Australia’s response. During the crisis, the travel advice for Japan received up to 25 000 page-views daily. Regular updates by email were sent to Australians registered with the department.

In addition to these four crises, we responded to crises and significant incidents that affected or had the potential to affect Australians overseas, including:

North Asia

  • China: plane crash—August 2010

South-East Asia

  • Vietnam: fireworks explosion in Hanoi—October 2010
  • Indonesia: train crash in Central Java—October 2010
  • Indonesia: earthquake in Sumatra—October 2010
  • Singapore: plane mechanical difficulties—November 2010
  • Cambodia: Koh Pich Water Festival stampede—November 2010
  • Indonesia: Mt Bromo volcano eruption—November 2010
  • Indonesia: fire on ferry—January 2011
  • Indonesia: Javanese volcano eruption and associated flight disruptions to Bali—January 2011
  • Vietnam: boat accident—February 2011
  • Thailand: flooding in Southern Provinces—March 2011
  • Indonesia: bombing in Cirebon—April 2011
  • Indonesia: plane crash—May 2011

Americas

  • United States: gas explosion in San Francisco—September 2010
  • Ecuador: civil unrest—October 2010
  • Cuba: plane crash—November 2010
  • United States: fire onboard cruise ship—November 2010
  • Mexico: explosion at Playa del Carmen—November 2010
  • Argentina: plane crash—May 2011
  • Chile: Puyehue volcano eruption—June 2011

Europe

  • Turkey: bombing in Istanbul—October 2010
  • Sweden: explosions in Stockholm—December 2010
  • Russia: bombing at Moscow Airport—January 2011
  • Belorussia: bombing in Minsk—April 2011

South and West Asia, Middle East and Africa

  • Uganda: bombing in Kampala—July 2010
  • India: train crash—July 2010
  • Pakistan: plane crash—July 2010
  • Pakistan: flooding—August 2010
  • India: flooding—August 2010
  • Nepal: plane crash—August 2010
  • Nigeria: bombing in Abuja—October 2010
  • Pakistan: plane crash—November 2010
  • India: bombing in Varanasi—December 2010
  • Tunisia: civil unrest—January 2011
  • Syria: civil unrest—April-June 2011
  • Pakistan: bombing in Peshawar—May 2011
  • Morocco: bombing in Marrakesh—May 2011

Pacific

  • Vanuatu: earthquake—August 2010
  • Papua New Guinea: earthquake—August 2010
  • Papua New Guinea: plane crash—August 2010
  • New Zealand: earthquake in Christchurch—September 2010
  • New Zealand: Pike River mine explosion—November 2010
  • Fiji: tidal waves—May 2011
  • New Zealand: Auckland tornado—May 2011
  • New Zealand: Christchurch earthquake—June 2011

We continued a focused program of contingency planning to test and refine posts’ plans to respond to incidents that could affect the safety and welfare of Australians. Consular Contingency Planning Assistance Team visits (CPATs) underpin preparedness and the capacity to deliver effective responses to risk scenarios. With the Department of Defence, in 2010–11 CPATs visited Bahrain, Cambodia, Japan, Jordan, Laos, Oman, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Korea, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates. We also held regional contingency planning workshops in Abu Dhabi, Cairo and London for staff from posts in the Middle East and Africa.

In November 2010, the department established an Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC) in Canberra to coordinate whole-of-government preparations for major international events expected to attract large numbers of Australians. Relevant posts prepared specific contingency plans, including for the Commonwealth Games in India and the Canonisation of Blessed Mary MacKillop in Rome, both in October 2010. A ‘mobile consular embassy’ was deployed in Rome to help Australians attending events associated with the canonisation. The department worked closely with Cricket Australia in advance of the ICC World Cup hosted by Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka from March to April 2011, and with the Football Federation of Australia on contingency planning for the Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup in Qatar in January 2011. Contingency planning commenced through the IDC for World Youth Day in Madrid in August 2011, the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in September 2011, and the Olympic Games in London in 2012.

Contingency planning for Anzac Day events in Gallipoli and in Villers-Bretonneux is an annual priority, managed with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and other agencies. Consular support staff were sent to provide assistance to the large numbers of Australians who attended these commemorations.

Keeping Australians informed

We worked hard in 2010–11 to provide accurate, up-to-date, responsive and effective travel advisory services, providing clear, current and practical information about safety and security overseas and helping Australians to make well-informed decisions about their travel.

The crises in Japan, New Zealand and the Middle East underlined the importance of the smartraveller campaign in providing timely and accurate information about safety and security conditions overseas. The crises also highlighted to Australian travellers the benefits of registering with smartraveller, subscribing to the email service and having comprehensive travel insurance. Australians who registered and subscribed had ready access to the most up-to-date and accurate information. They were also easier to contact to verify their safety, when we received inquiries from concerned friends and family, than travellers who had not registered.

During 2010–11, we issued 1384 updates to travel advisories and travel bulletins for 165 destinations. Travel advisories were supported by the best available threat information provided by the National Threat Assessment Centre. The department also kept in close contact with consular partners Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States on these issues.

In addition to the regular travel advisories, we issued new travel bulletins for major issues, events and incidents including the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, unrest in Egypt and Libya, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the Canonisation of Blessed Mary MacKillop in Rome, the World Cup Cricket in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and Anzac Day in Turkey.

In total, the smartraveller website recorded 30.1 million page-views in 2010–11, an increase from 27.9 million in 2009–10. The smartraveller travel advice subscription service, which enables users to receive updated travel advisories and bulletins via email as soon as they are posted on the smartraveller website, had 70 683 subscribers at 30 June 2011, compared to 69 991 on 30 June 2010. We began to use Twitter to disseminate information about travel advisories and send key messages to
a wider audience.

The automated smartraveller telephone service, which made travel advice available to Australians without internet access or with visual impairment, received 13 050 calls in 2010–11. This was a fall of 19.9 per cent from 2009–10, when 16 292 calls were received.

In the lead-up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, we developed a consular card to assist Australians travelling to India with their travel plans. The department also liaised with media and travel industry representatives and maintained close contact with various sporting bodies, to ensure they were aware of services that can and cannot be provided to Australians overseas. Preparations for the World Cup Cricket in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh also involved extensive liaison with sporting and supporters groups.

The department again worked with the travel industry to promote travel advice and other smartraveller messages. We convened two meetings of the Smartraveller Consultative Group to communicate safety and security messages to travel agents/operators and airlines and, through them, to Australian travellers. We spoke at events arranged by Smartraveller Consultative Group partners and at travel industry functions, seminars and travel expos.

Support for the Charter for Safe Travel remained steady with a membership of 2891 on 30 June 2011. This reflects the travel industry’s satisfaction with the quality of the department’s information and services to travellers.

An outreach program with Lebanese communities in Sydney and Melbourne in October 2010 included participation by a consular officer from our embassy in Beirut to discuss and clarify consular services we can provide for Australians in Lebanon.

Consular Service Charter

Feedback on consular services is obtained in a variety of ways in accordance with the Consular Services Charter, including the feedback form on the smartraveller website. 782 emails were received via the feedback form in 2010–11, of which 49 commented positively on services provided. Other feedback included positive and negative comment on smartraveller services; clarification of information in travel advisories; comment on specific consular cases; and requests for general consular or notarial information. Other sources of feedback were letters to Ministers and directly to staff both in Australia and overseas as well as direct emails and phone calls. All feedback is considered carefully and used to improve delivery of consular services.

Outlook

We will continue to provide a high level of consular support to Australians overseas and will work to improve our service further.

Through the smartraveller campaign and travel advisories, we will continue to inform Australians about the importance of considered preparations and well-informed travel decisions, and how to avoid risky behaviour and dangerous destinations, while holding realistic expectations of consular services.

We will continue implementing reforms to our crisis management processes, to strengthen further our ability to respond to events overseas which affect the safety of Australians. The department will focus on training and staffing arrangements, including deployment of consular emergency response teams. We will continue our program of Contingency Planning Assistance Team visits to test and refine posts’ consular plans to confirm they are ready to respond quickly and effectively to crisis incidents involving Australians overseas. We will also expand our consular footprint overseas by establishing additional honorary consuls in key locations.

We will continue work on a new consular information system to help us deliver services to travelling Australians, including an improved registration system.

TABLE 10. CONSULAR SERVICES PROVIDED TO AUSTRALIAN TRAVELLERS

  2006–07 2007–08 2008–09 2009–10 2010–11
Australian Resident
Departures1
5 300 830 5 878 445 6 009 033 6 938 303 7 609 300
Cases of Australians
hospitalised given assistance
1 093 1 260 1 480 1 467 1 203
Cases of Australians
evacuated to another location
for medical purposes
67 46 32 29 28
Cases of next of kin of
Australians who died overseas
given guidance or assistance
with disposal of remains
912 994 1 038 1 143 1 142
Cases of Australians having
difficulty arranging their return
to Australia given assistance
5 209 51 39 29 478 2
Whereabouts - Inquiries made
about Australians overseas
who could not be contacted by
t heir next of kin
13 025 13 598 17 966 9 310 12 899 3
Cases of Australians arrested
overseas
934 970 1 019 1 086 1 069
Number of Australians in
prison as at 30 June 2011
188 211 223 252 236 4
Cases of Australians given
general welfare and guidance
12 385 8 405 5 992 7 679 7 054 5
Total number of cases
involving Australians in
difficulty
33 927 25 987 27 861 20 995 24 186
Notarial acts6 135 347 159 005 166 662 165 240 177 474
Total number of cases of
Australians provided with
consular assistance
169 274 184 992 194 523 186 235 201 660
Australians in financial difficulty
who were lent public funds
to cover immediate needs
(travellers emergency loans)
301 384 334 286 345 7
  1. This figure draws on ABS and DIAC data, and includes permanent departures, long-term departures and short-term departures of Australian citizens and permanent residents.
  2. This figure includes 431 Australians assisted to depart during Egypt, Christchurch, New Zealand, Libya and Japan crises
  3. This figure includes crisis related whereabouts cases
  4. The total number of cases of Australians imprisoned during 2010–11 was 313. Some of these cases may have been resolved during the year. The ‘number of Australians in prison as at 30 June 2011’ is a ‘snapshot’ of the Australian overseas prisoner population on 30 June 2011.
  5. Welfare and guidance figure includes the following sub-categories: general (2739), welfare / other serious matters (2850), theft (1075), assaults (206) and welfare of children (184).
  6. Figure includes notarial acts performed by overseas posts, in Canberra and state and territory offices in Australia.
  7. The figure includes 57 loans provided during three crises (Egypt, Japan and Christchurch, New Zealand).

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