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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

Program 2.1: Consular Services

Program 2.1 Objective

  • To support and assist Australian travellers and Australians overseas through high-quality consular services, including accurate and 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 travel information on travel destinations, promoting this information through continuation of the smartraveller campaign and effectively managing 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 terrorist incidents.

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.
  • Accurate and timely travel advisories which provide clear guidance to a broad audience of potential risks and the extent of Australian Government assistance, and continued growth of public use of the smartraveller website and the online registration service.
  • Consular contingency planning accurately anticipates high-risk events and scenarios, necessary resources for response are readily available, procedures and networks remain valid and viable, and plans are tested and reviewed regularly.
  • Timely and effective consular support to Australians through well-coordinated implementation of whole-of-government responses to large-scale crises.

Program 2.1: Consular Services

Overview

With over 8 million overseas departures by Australian residents in 2011–12—an 11 per cent increase since 2010–11—consular services remained central to the department's work. The department and its overseas posts assisted 14 574 Australians in difficulty overseas, often in remote locations and challenging circumstances. Although there were fewer international crises compared with 2010–11, a number of high-profile incidents and complex cases placed unforeseen demands on the department's services.

Acting on lessons learned from the 2011 crises, the department increased staffing of our crisis-response mechanisms, improved training and led inter-agency teams to assist posts with contingency planning in the Pacific, South-East Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. We also supported preparations for major sporting and commemorative events overseas, and commenced development of an Emergency Response Team corps which will be prepared and equipped to deploy overseas in the event of a crisis.

The department reviewed ways to enhance our support to the most vulnerable Australians overseas, including victims of violent crime, kidnapping, forced marriage and child abduction. At the same time, we continued to underline the limits of the consular service we can provide, and the individual responsibility of Australian travellers to take measures to safeguard their wellbeing.

The department launched the third phase of the smartraveller public information campaign, utilising both traditional and new media to encourage travelling Australians to convert awareness of safety and security conditions in other countries into action. We continued to accord a high priority to the accuracy and timeliness of the travel advice delivered through the smartraveller website. A thorough review and revamp made the website clearer and more accessible, including to web-enabled mobile devices.

Significant time was invested in strengthening Australia's links with traditional and new consular partners, with a particular focus on those in Asia.

Consular services

At 30 June 2012, Australians had access to consular services around the world through:

  • 89 diplomatic and consular missions, and 60 honorary consulates managed by the department
  • 14 consular missions and 5 honorary consulates managed by Austrade (as at 30 June 2012, the Consulate in Tripoli was temporarily closed)
  • the Australian Office in Taipei
  • the Australian Representative Office, Ramallah
  • 17 Canadian diplomatic missions, under Australia's Consular Sharing Agreement with Canada.

Australians also had access to notarial services through our state and territory offices in Adelaide, Brisbane, Darwin, Hobart and Perth, and through our passport offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle and Canberra.

Australians were able to access consular services 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Consular Emergency Centre located in Canberra. The centre received 42 866 calls in 2011–12, down from 44 545 calls in 2010–11. The drop in the volume of calls reflected the lower number of overseas crises affecting Australians over the reporting period.

The department used the network of Regional Consular Officers and Special Consular Officers in Abu Dhabi, London, Mexico, New Delhi, Pretoria and Shanghai to bolster consular capacity where required, including in response to crises.

Work continued on a new consular management information system to support services to travelling Australians. This project will continue in 2012–13.

Personal Profile:

Claire McComish

Photo of Claire McComish

After spending about half of her DFAT career on postings overseas, Claire McComish now heads up one of the Consular Operations Teams in Canberra – the department's 'front line' in dealing with the Australian public.

Responding to high profile consular cases can be an intense but rewarding experience, involving coordination within and across agencies, consultation with the Foreign Minister's Office, and focused media attention.

"It is a great team of people, all of whom value the sense of reward they get from helping people, and there is rarely a dull moment in our day".

Since joining the department, Claire has gained experience in a diverse range of placements, from security operations to reporting on trade barriers and human rights issues, organising international meetings and, most recently, managing the budget, human resources and property of a large overseas post.

"The chance to diversify within the department has kept me interested and motivated. The specialist training on offer, as well as the opportunity to advance my fluency and knowledge of the languages I studied at university, adds to a very fulfilling and enjoyable job. I never stop learning!"

Assisting Australians overseas

In 2011–12, consular staff provided a total of 202 723 consular services, compared to 201 660 in 2010–11. Our consular caseload continued to be diverse, complex and challenging, reflecting the increasing number of Australians travelling, including to remote and exotic locations.

Our consular staff provided assistance and support to 1507 Australians arrested or imprisoned overseas, by ensuring they had access to legal assistance, attending trials to ensure they were not discriminated against, and conducting regular visits to ensure they were treated properly and had access to adequate food and medical care in places of detention. We provided support and advice to grieving families on the repatriation of the remains of loved ones who had passed away while overseas. In consultation with agencies such as the Australian Federal Police, we provided a high level of advice and assistance to family members affected by the kidnapping of a relative overseas, while maintaining the Government's strict and longstanding policy of not paying ransoms.

We continued to devote considerable resources to locating Australians overseas, where there were well-founded concerns for their welfare. In 2011–12, consular staff received 4154 overseas whereabouts enquiries (down from 12 899 in 2010–11).

Travellers emergency loans

The department used funds available through travellers emergency loans to provide $218 470 in assistance to 365 Australians in 2011–12. This compares to $356 246 in loans issued to 345 Australian travellers in the previous year.

Loans were provided case-by-case, following assessment of clients' needs and their ability to access alternative financial sources. 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 included the Prisoner Loans Scheme, under which $63 947 was loaned to 60 Australians imprisoned overseas to ensure their access to adequate food and other essentials.

We continued efforts to improve loan recovery rates by following up promptly with debtors and offering a range of repayment options, including repayment by instalments. The undertaking-to-repay signed by each loan recipient also links eligibility for a new passport to the repayment of an outstanding loan. Under this system, $207 963 was recovered from Australians who had been issued loans, compared to $136 564 in 2010–11.

Table 9. Travellers emergency loans

2008–09
2009–10
2010–11
2011–12
Number of Australian travellers assisted by emergency loans
334
286
345
365
Amount provided in emergency loans
$415 767
$320 456
$356 246
$218 470
Amount recovered in debt recovery activities
$181 789
$196 447
$136 564
$207 963

Consular emergency services

The department granted payments of $93 372 to a small number of Australian travellers under the consular emergency services financial support mechanism, which enables payment of in-kind services to Australians in need, and covers funeral costs, when it is not practical or legally possible for consular clients or their family members to sign an undertaking-to-repay.

Consular cooperation

The department built on Australia's consular relationships, continuing our close practical cooperation with Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, to enhance delivery of consular services. We strengthened consular cooperation with several countries through annual consular dialogues with China, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam, and by making available opportunities to share consular training.

We co-hosted with the Department of Defence a meeting of the non-combatant evacuation operation coordination group in Sydney, to strengthen the efficient use of assets in major evacuations and to share best practice in regard to contingency planning. The meeting brought together representatives from our consular partner countries (United States, United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand), as well as France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Netherlands, Spain and Portugal.

Consular policy

In consultation with agencies such as the Attorney-General's Department and the Australian Federal Police as well as non-government organisations, we examined ways to strengthen the department's consular response to Australian victims of violent crime, kidnapping, forced marriage and child abduction overseas. For example, we reviewed the level of advice and support we provide to families of Australian victims of kidnapping overseas, including in light of the report of a Senate inquiry on this topic and the independent review of the kidnapping of Nigel Brennan in 2008–09.

The department reviewed the Consular Handbook and published it on the DFAT website. The plain-English handbook explains the consular services provided by the department in Canberra and our overseas posts.

Consular training

We expanded our 'crisis cadre' by training over 180 staff to coordinate the whole-of-government response to an incident overseas. This training included scenario-based role-plays involving external partners. We also began preparing and equipping a new consular emergency response team (ERT) corps of 18 departmental volunteers who will be ready to deploy overseas to assist posts in their consular response. The department developed the ERT proposal in close consultation with other agencies with similar crisis-deployable capabilities, including Defence, the Australian Federal Police, AusAID and Emergency Management Australia, as well as through benchmarking against international best practice.

We continued to develop the skills of Australian consular officials preparing for overseas service and serving overseas, by providing over 30 training courses for locally engaged staff overseas, Honorary Consuls and Austrade staff in Canberra, the Americas and Europe. Over 100 new consular officers completed our training programs in 2011–12. We also provided consular training to officials from Singapore, China and Indonesia. In all, we provided non-crisis consular training in Canberra to some 350 individuals.

We held regional contingency planning workshops for staff based in the Americas and Europe, while posts around the world conducted exercises to test their plans, occasionally with support of regional posts and Canberra.

Responding to and preparing for consular crises

The department has refined its response mechanism for crises affecting Australians overseas on the basis of experience of major crises over more than ten years and through the continual implementation of lessons learned. At the core of this mechanism lies our Canberra crisis centre, which can be activated at very short notice to operate on a 24-hour basis. When activated, the centre is staffed on rotation by 180 trained departmental volunteers, in addition to teams on standby duty throughout the year and others rostered onto shifts at short notice. The crisis cadre was expanded to its current size from 120 in 2011, implementing one of the lessons learned from the series of crises in the first half of that year. The department comprehensively reviewed the centre's standard operating procedures and aligned our capability more closely with that of other agencies.

We activated the crisis centre in December for a kidnapping in the Philippines, until the establishment of a standing task force to handle the case in cooperation with the Australian Federal Police and other agencies. The crisis centre was used in response to the floods in Fiji in March, which also called for close consultation with AusAID to ensure consular and humanitarian aspects of our response were complementary. We also activated the crisis centre in response to the detention of an Australian lawyer in Libya in June. We used other aspects of our crisis mechanism, including the Emergency Call Unit, to answer queries from the public regarding the Costa Concordia sinking in Italy, the grounding of Qantas flights, and an earthquake off Aceh.

Our global network of overseas posts continued to provide exceptional assistance to Australians in distress. For example, our Embassy in Rome moved quickly to confirm the welfare of Australians following the Costa Concordia incident, while our Consulate-General in Honolulu worked with local authorities to arrange emergency accommodation for Australian travellers stranded when their airline entered receivership. Our High Commission in Port Moresby worked to ascertain whether Australians had been affected by a landslide in the southern highlands and supported the Papua New Guinean Government's response to its own nationals involved in the sinking of a ferry. This included facilitating the involvement of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

We continued a focused program to test and refine posts' plans to respond to incidents that could affect the safety and welfare of Australians. Contingency Planning Assistance Team (CPAT) visits underpin preparedness and the capacity to deliver effective responses to risk scenarios. Working with the Department of Defence, we sent CPATs to New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Kenya, South Sudan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Chile, Peru, and Indonesia in 2011–12. We liaised closely with the private sector, both during crises and in contingency planning.

Contingency planning for Anzac Day events in Gallipoli and Villers-Bretonneux is an annual priority, managed with the Department of Veteran Affairs and other agencies. We sent consular support staff to these locations to provide assistance to the large numbers of Australians who attended commemorations there. We also sent extra consular staff to New Zealand to assist Australians attending the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, while continuing our contingency planning for the London Olympic and Paralympic Games and commencing planning for the tenth anniversary of the Bali bombings.

Keeping Australians informed

During 2011–12, the department continued to enhance our travel advisory services, aimed at providing accurate and up-to-date information to help Australians make well-informed decisions about travelling overseas.

We implemented a major review of the advice provided to Australian travellers, replacing the previous five-level system for country advice with a risk-based four-level system (exercise normal security precautions; exercise a high degree of caution; reconsider need to travel; do not travel).

We issued 888 updates to travel advisories for 167 destinations as well as travel bulletins, reflecting changes in the security situation and other significant developments. We also maintained our systematic three-monthly review of all advisories. In addition, we amended travel bulletins regularly in response to developments for major events and issues, including the collapse of Air Australia, floods in Fiji, Anzac Day in Turkey and France, and the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in London.

Our advice drew on information from a range of sources, including diplomatic and intelligence reporting. We continued to work on a principle of no double standards: our advice to the public is the same as our advice to staff and to the private sector; whenever possible, we pass on credible and specific threat information to the public.

Then Foreign Minister, Mr Rudd, launched Phase III of the smartraveller public information campaign in November 2011. In this phase, we aim to convert Australian travellers' existing awareness of smartraveller into action: encouraging them to register their travel plans; to read and subscribe to travel advice at www.smartraveller.gov.au; and to take out comprehensive travel insurance. Accompanying the campaign launch, we refreshed the main smartraveller website to include the four-level advice system, as well as clearer layout and navigation features. We also launched a mobile version of the website for users of web-enabled mobile devices, including smartphones.

The campaign commenced with a round of media advertising in December 2011 on television, radio and print media and online. A second round of media advertising ran from late April to mid-June 2012. The campaign has also included digital search advertising focused on key words and destinations, linked to the relevant smartraveller advice pages.

The smartraveller campaign returned to Australia's larger international airports in June 2012 with advertising and sponsorship of the free Wi-Fi at Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane airports. This advertising took advantage of the opportunity provided by the proliferation of web-enabled mobile devices, combined with the availability of free Wi-Fi and the launch of the smartraveller mobile website.

Demonstrating the effectiveness of the campaign in turning awareness into action, smartraveller registrations have increased markedly to an average of 3700 per day in the month of June 2012, compared with 2105 per day in June 2011. Smartraveller subscriptions also steadily increased, reaching 84 807 as at 30 June 2012, compared to 70 683 as at 30 June 2011.

We continued to work with the travel industry to promote travel advice and the smartraveller campaign messages. We convened two meetings of the Smartraveller Consultative Group to seek industry feedback on the development and performance of the campaign. We launched an online e-learning tool for travel agents. We also attended 21 travel expos, reaching out to individual travel service providers and bringing the smartraveller message directly to the travelling public.

Consular Service Charter

The department continued to receive feedback on ways to improve its consular services to Australians overseas. We obtained feedback in a variety of ways in accordance with the Consular Services Charter, including the feedback form on the smartraveller website, ministerial correspondence and feedback provided to our staff via email, over the phone or at the counter, both in Australia and overseas. Where possible, we act on feedback to continue improving the delivery of fair, accountable and transparent consular services to the Australian public.

Outlook

We will maintain a high level of consular support to Australians overseas and examine ways to improve our service within available resources.

The department will continue implementing reforms to our crisis-management processes to strengthen our ability to respond to events overseas that affect the safety of Australians. We will focus on training for the 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. We will undertake a comprehensive review of our existing crisis facilities, systems and processes. We will enhance our links with foreign consular services, other government agencies and the private sector.

We will continue the smartraveller campaign; building on the success to date of Phase III, by launching new targeted advertising and expanding our use of new technologies and social media. This will include the release of an iPhone 'app' that takes advantage of smartphone features, such as geo-positioning, to deliver targeted travel advice and registration services. We will also implement audio software on the smartraveller website, enabling the public to listen to individual advice pages.

The department will lead a whole-of-government effort, in conjunction with posts in Bali and Jakarta, to organise a commemoration service in Bali to mark the tenth anniversary of the first Bali bombings. The service will allow victims, families and the broader community to join together in remembering the tragic events of 12 October 2002.

Table 10. Consular services provided to Australian travellers

2007–08
2008–09
2009–10
2010–11
2011–12
Australian resident departures1
5 878 445
6 009 033
6 938 303
7 609 300
8 452 924
Cases of Australians hospitalised given general welfare and guidance
1260
1480
1467
1203
1265
Cases of Australians evacuated to another location for medical purposes
46
32
29
28
24
Cases of next of kin of Australians who died overseas given guidance or assistance with disposal of remains
994
1038
1143
1142
1138
Cases of Australians having difficulty arranging their own return to Australia given guidance and assistance
51
39
29
478
46
Whereabouts – inquiries made about Australians overseas who could not be contacted by their next of kin
13 598
17 966
9310
12 899
4154
Cases of Australians arrested overseas
970
1019
1086
1069
1181
Number of Australians in prison as at 30 June
211
223
252
236
2363
Cases of Australians given general welfare and guidance
8405
5992
7679
7054
64404
Total number of cases involving Australians in difficulty
25 987
27 861
20 995
24 186
14 574
Notarial acts5
159 005
166 662
165 240
177 474
188 149
Total number of cases of Australians provided with consular assistance
184 992
194 523
186 235
201 660
202 723
Australians in financial difficulty who were lent public funds to cover immediate needs (travellers emergency loans)
384
334
286
3456
365

1. This figure draws on ABS and DIAC data, and includes permanent, long-term and short-term departures of Australian citizens and permanent residents.

2. This figure includes crisis-related whereabouts cases.

3. The total number of cases of Australians imprisoned during 2011–12 was 326. Some of these cases may have been resolved during the year. The number of Australians in prison as at 30 June 2012 is a 'snapshot' of the Australian overseas prisoner population on 30 June 2012.

4. Welfare and guidance figure includes the following sub-categories: general (2779), welfare/other serious matters (2062), theft (1221), assaults (193) and welfare of children (185).

5. Figure includes notarial acts performed by overseas posts, in Canberra and state and territory offices in Australia.

6. The figure includes 57 loans provided during three crises (Egypt, Japan and Christchurch, New Zealand).

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade