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Annual Report 1999-2000Annual Report 1999-2000 home page

ContentsContents > Overviews > Outcome 1: National Interests > Outcome 2: Consular & Passports > Outcome 3: Public Diplomacy > Management > Financial Statements > Appendixes > Glossaries

YOU ARE CURRENTLY AT: Outcome 2 > Output 2.1 > 24-hour consular services


Outcome 2: Australians informed about and provided access to consular and passport services in Australia and overseas

OUTPUT 2.1
Consular and passport services

24-hour consular services

Traveller awareness of trouble spots and assistance available

The department stepped up our efforts to ensure that all Australian travellers were fully aware of general traveller safety issues and of specific potential problems overseas. These efforts had a discernible impact: while the total number of Australians travelling overseas has increased by 30.7 per cent since 1995–96, the total number of Australians provided with consular assistance has increased by only 11.6 per cent over the same period. In the year in review, the increase in the number of Australians in difficulty was again exceeded by the total increase in outbound travellers.

An increased number of visits to the department’s consular website indicated that our information was being read more widely by the travelling public: by May 2000 the average number of weekly visits had increased to 29 284 from 18 678 in July 1999. The site contains a range of useful information for the Australian traveller, including the department’s travel advisory notices and an electronic version of the department’s regular publication, Hints for Australian Travellers.

Indicating the importance attached by the Australian public to the authoritative nature of the website, the number of visits increased dramatically during the period of unrest in Indonesia in September–October 1999, peaking at 32 607 in the first week of September.

Our travel advisory notices provide the Australian travelling public and the travel industry with timely advice about potential trouble spots. Travel advisory notices are distributed to the travel industry through their electronic networks. Travel insurance companies take careful note of these advisories, and they were given wider coverage in the Australian media in 1999–2000.

Following a review of the travel advisory system conducted during the year, our advisories are now more current (80 per cent are less than three months old, and none are more than six months old), more numerous (225 advisory notices covering 80 countries were issued in 1999–2000, an increase from 122 the previous year), broader in scope (dealing with issues such as piracy, religious restrictions and Y2K risks as well as specific security situations), clearer in presentation, and better linked to the media network.

Each of the 1.14 million Australians who received a new passport during the year also received a copy of the department’s publication Hints for Australian Travellers. This booklet was updated twice during the year. Other regular information efforts included the quarterly consular newsletter, each edition of which was distributed to 6 000 travel agents. Nine consular brochures, covering issues such as arrest and imprisonment overseas, dual nationality, missing people, advice for women travellers and travel to Bali, were distributed in response to demand from the travel industry and the travelling public. A total of 184 000 copies of these brochures were distributed.

Departmental staff addressed a range of travel conferences (from the annual conference of the Australian Business Travellers Association to regular information nights run by the Youth Hostels Association) about the services provided by the department and common difficulties faced by Australians overseas. We intensified our contacts with the travel media, leading to greater publicity for the department’s advisory services—for example on the Getaway television program and in major daily newspapers.

Table 6. Consular services provided to Australian travellers

 

1997–98

1998–99

1999–2000

Australian travellers *

3 031 900

3 188 700

3 292 200

Australians given general welfare guidance and assistance

19 000

15 551

16 085

Hospitalised Australians given guidance and assistance

774

681

656

Australians evacuated to another location for medical purposes

108

107

103

Next of kin guided or assisted with disposal of remains in relation to death overseas

590

548

604

Australians having difficulty arranging their own return to Australia given guidance and assistance

95

57

60

Inquiries made about Australians overseas who could not be contacted by their next of kin

1 210

1 659

1 850

Australians arrested overseas

420

476

453

Australians in prisons overseas (as at 30 June)

168

158

155

Australians in financial difficulties who were lent public funds to cover immediate needs (travellers’ emergency loans)

1 091

896

775

Total number of cases involving Australians in difficulty

23 456

20 133

20 741

Overseas notarial acts

34 250

40 285

45 420

Total number of Australians provided with consular assistance

57 706

60 418

66 161

Number of calls received in Consular Branch and on the Department’s public/freecall numbers **

135 233

* 1997–98, 1998–99 figures from ABS data.
The 1999–2000 figure is an estimate based on figures for the first ten months of the financial year provided by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs.

** Figures not available for previous financial years.

Accessibility of consular services

As at 30 June 2000, Australians could access consular assistance through 152 points of service overseas, including through 77 of the 81 posts managed by the department, 17 Austrade-managed posts and 42 consulates headed by honorary consuls. Consular services were also provided to Australians through 16 Canadian posts (covering 17 countries) under the Government’s Consular Sharing Agreement with Canada (see Appendix 19). In Australia, consular services are provided in Canberra and through our State and Territory offices.

HMAS Adelaide in Hong Kong

On board HMAS Adelaide in Hong Kong Harbour in November 1999, Royal Australian Navy sailors vote in the 1999 constitutional referendum on whether Australia should become a republic. Through our overseas network, the department provided assistance to Australians to cast their ballots.


 

We increased our capacity to deliver 24-hour consular services across the globe to help meet steadily increasing demand. The number of Australian overseas posts linked to the 24-hour Consular Operations Centre—through which Australians in difficulty can gain obtain direct assistance, toll-free, from experienced consular staff on duty in Canberra—increased from 47 to 54. The number of overseas offices providing full consular services grew, with an embassy replacing an honorary consul in Croatia, and Austrade-managed consulates-general replacing honorary consuls in Romania and Peru.

We concluded a bilateral consular agreement with China in September 1999, greatly assisting our ability to help Australians in distress in China, and establishing a standard for agreements with other countries where circumstances impede our capacity to deliver assistance. Australia ratified the agreement on 9 December 1999; China ratified it early in the Australian 2000–01 financial year.

Australian and Canadian officials agreed at a May 2000 meeting in Ottawa to expand the number of countries in which they provide mutual assistance—Canada will provide assistance in Syria, Guatemala, Ecuador and Costa Rica; Australia in East Timor. As at 30 June 2000 this arrangement covered 39 countries. The meeting also agreed on improved mechanisms for cooperation between posts, and to exchange information on issues such as bilateral prisoner exchanges and child abduction. Cooperation with other countries (the United Kingdom, the United States and New Zealand) was enhanced by the convening of two planning meetings, including one on the potential consular problems of Y2K.

Responsiveness to consular crises

The department coordinated Government responses to civil unrest and hostilities in Indonesia, East Timor, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Kashmir during 1999–2000.

Following the deaths of 14 young Australians in the Swiss canyoning accident at Interlaken in July 1999, the department represented the interests of the victims, survivors and their families in dealings with the Swiss authorities. We brought Swiss lawyers to Australia to brief the families about progress of the investigation into the causes of the tragedy and about the families’ legal rights. We continue to provide families with information and advice about Swiss legal developments.

The East Timor evacuation in September 1999 involved coordinating the deployment of substantial Australian Defence Force assets to assist the departure of 2 551 Australians, approved third-country nationals, and a substantial number of internally displaced people.

Departmental staff, particularly in Islamabad and New Delhi, managed responses to the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane in late December 1999. Our performance in liaising with various parties, including the family and employers of the Australian hostage involved, won very positive feedback.

Drawing on our experience with the tragedy in Interlaken, the department was closely engaged in helping the Queensland Government handle the tragedy in which 13 young foreign nationals and three Australians died in a fire in Childers, Queensland, on 22–23 June 2000. Mr Downer visited the scene and departmental staff travelled to Childers to liaise with foreign consular officials. We gave information about survivors and possible victims to foreign governments, supported the Queensland authorities with advice on longer-term issues such as counselling services to next of kin, and provided information on judicial processes to foreign governments and the families of victims.

The Solomon Islands evacuation in June 2000 was particularly complex, involving the first seaborne evacuation in the Government’s experience, a joint Australia–New Zealand airborne operation and the need for a high level of cooperation between Commonwealth and State agencies on reception arrangements. A total of 1 066 people were evacuated, including 313 Australians. Portfolio ministers, agencies involved and governments whose nationals had been assisted provided positive feedback and expressed appreciation of the department’s coordination role, especially as carried out by our small Honiara high commission.

The evacuation, and particularly criticism about cost-recovery arrangements, highlighted the need for flexibility and close consultation with ministers in handling evacuations, which vary considerably in circumstance. Following the evacuation, the department reviewed our procedures. The result was an update of consular instructions and guidelines to accommodate the new scenarios that emerged in the Solomon Islands case.

During the hostage crisis and civil coup in Fiji in May–June 2000, the department maintained close contact with the Australian expatriate and tourist community through a comprehensive registration system and liaison with international airlines, hotels and other local bodies. The department issued 19 travel advisories on Fiji to keep the Australian public informed of the changing political and security environment. Australians heeded our travel advice, with the number of Australians in Fiji decreasing significantly during the period of the crisis.

Other serious matters dealt with by the department and our posts included: two kidnappings overseas, both of which were successfully resolved; earthquakes in Greece, Turkey and Taiwan; assistance to large communities of Australian tourists and expatriates in Indonesia; and cases of murder, sexual assault, piracy, robbery, medical evacuation and arrest and detention where Australians and their families were affected.

Handling Y2K

The department developed contingency plans to ensure that, to the extent possible, our overseas missions would not be affected by possible Y2K failure and that the standard of services provided to the travelling public would not be compromised. We held regular discussions with foreign governments and representatives of key sectors in those countries, with the Australian telecommunications, aviation and power sectors, with relevant UN specialised agencies, and with international Y2K experts. On 7 October 1999, the department issued assessments of the impact of Y2K on key sectors in 70 countries in which the Australian Government was represented. The media were briefed on these assessments and the department wrote to the travel industry and airlines. A considerable effort was made by posts, including through regular consultation with our consular partner posts from the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada.

Our 24-hour Consular Operations Centre (COC) in Canberra was on standby to manage the consular aspects of the Y2K changeover.

More information on the department’s handling of Y2K can be found in output 1.3.

The consular caseload

Most consular cases are routine, but they all require a swift and compassionate response from the department to protect the welfare of Australians—and sometimes save their lives—as well as meeting the needs of families in Australia left anxious and traumatised. We handled 20 741 cases involving Australians in difficulty in 1999–2000. The following case is one of them.

In December 1999, a young Australian was severely injured in a bungalow fire on a resort island in Thailand. Because of a lack of local facilities, consular staff from the Australian embassy, in consultation with the department’s 24-hour Consular Operations Centre, arranged for him to be moved urgently by air ambulance to a specialist burns unit in Bangkok.

Meanwhile, we had informed the man’s family in Australia of the accident. Family members then flew to Thailand where consular staff met them and took them to the man’s bedside. Consular staff introduced family members to the doctors and explained how the local hospital system worked.

The man was in intensive care in Bangkok for another three months. Throughout this time the embassy monitored his condition and stayed in close touch with family members while helping them in their contact with doctors. The man’s condition improved enough for him to return to Australia in March 2000. Embassy staff accompanied him and his family to the airport and worked closely with local authorities to smooth his departure. The man and his family have expressed their profound appreciation for the support given to them throughout their ordeal.

Because of the life-threatening nature of the man’s injuries, the department initially paid the costs of his evacuation to Bangkok. But ultimately he and his family had to repay the money. Each year a number of Australians are forced to extend credit or sell assets to fund such expenses. In each case, they could have avoided that cost by taking out travel insurance. The department’s publications and dealings with travel agents emphasise the benefits of travel insurance and, in light of experience in 1999–2000, we are determined to strengthen these information activities.


YOU ARE CURRENTLY AT: Outcome 2 > Output 2.1 > 24-hour consular services

Annual Report 1999-2000Annual Report 1999-2000 home page

ContentsContents > Overviews > Outcome 1: National Interests > Outcome 2: Consular & Passports > Outcome 3: Public Diplomacy > Management > Financial Statements > Appendixes > Glossaries

 

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