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What the embassy can and can’t do to assist you if you encounter trouble abroad while travelling


Australians are flying out into the world again. The numbers are still below pre-pandemic levels, but close 1.1 million Australians left the country in December last year – compared to 1.3 million in December 2019. According to information from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, passport applications in 2022 have broken records, averaging more than 250,000 per month in the second half of the year.

International travel is a safe, positive experience for most people, but unfortunately things go wrong for some travelers. Problems can be anything from lost passports and petty theft to serious welfare issues, hospitalization and arrests.

In these cases, the DFAT Consular Service is expected to do what it can to help. But where does personal responsibility begin and end when we leave our shores? What can we expect from our government and what can we do ourselves to minimize the risks?

Travelers behave badly

As a former head of the consular service in the early 2000s, I know that the workload of overseas Australians is not limited to big, news-grabbing situations, such as the recent kidnapping of an Australian-based academic by a criminal gang in Papua New Guinea, or the impact of the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria on Australians and their families.

These were serious situations that required intensive work from our diplomats, but there is much more to it.

From June 2021-22an average of four Australians died abroad every day, while an average of two Australians were arrested every day – on matters ranging from immigration offenses to drug crime, theft and fraud.

In all, nearly 16,000 Australians turned to their local Australian overseas mission for “crisis” assistance that year – more than three times the number in 2018-19 before the pandemic. COVID-related repatriations organized by DFAT were counted separately, of which there were more than 62,000 in the past three years.

Having an Australian passport means we can rely on a consular service support in these situations. But traveler expectations have grown in recent decades, in part because of the speed of our communication and the instant feedback we receive through social media.

Australian citizens queue as they wait for a government repatriation flight at Bali airport during the August 2021 pandemic.
Made Nagi/EPA

While most Australians are self-reliant travellers, there are still many who fail to keep their side of the bargain. The most important thing is that there are still too many people who do not take out suitable travel insurance. Others ignore official travel warnings and turn to the government for help when things go wrong.

Then there are those whose expectations are simply inappropriate – for example, asking officials to arrange opera tickets or take care of their pets.

Even worse, expectations can be very difficult to manage in foreign arrest cases. Some Australians are shocked that their citizenship doesn’t come with a “get out of jail free card”. But we are all subject to local laws and authorities, regardless of our views on the legal norms that apply in some countries.

At some point there are between 300 and 400 Australians captured abroad. Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, there are real ones limits to what the Australian Consular Service can do in these cases.

The agency will periodically monitor the welfare of prisoners abroad, guide them to local legal representation and oversee their trials. But that’s about it. This also applies to foreigners imprisoned in Australia.

Of course, occasionally there is a case that is manifestly so arbitrary or unjust that our government calls for the release of the individual. This was the case for Sean Turnell, who was imprisoned in Myanmar for political reasons until his release last year. But unlike Turnell, most Australian prisoners abroad probably have a case to answer.

Three ways to stay safe

1) Get informed about where you are going

Australians have a responsibility to know what is happening at their planned destinations. The conflicts in Ukraine and elsewhere have affected many travelers, as have major weather events and natural disasters.

With international flights returning to normal over the past year, DFAT’s COVID repatriation program has largely ended. Travelers need to rethink their own resources – or their travel insurance policies – to make sure they get home.

From the government Smart raveller website is a reliable source of up-to-date information on everything from emerging health risks to cultural and legal issues in specific countries to the local security situation. They recently launched one new advertising campaign in an effort to emphasize the importance of avoiding problems in the first place.

2) Stay in touch with family back home

The consular service processes hundreds of residence details every year. And if disaster strikes while you’re traveling somewhere, your family and friends will be worried.

In each of the major consular disasters I was involved in, including the September 11 attacks and the 2002 Bali bombings, there were people who caused untold grief to their loved ones by not letting them know they were safe.

In my recent book The consulI tell the story of an Australian who worked on an upper floor of the World Trade Center in New York, but took ten days to let his family know that he had actually been in London when the attacks took place.

What the embassy can and cant do to assist you.0&q=45&auto=format&w=237&fit=clip

University of Queensland Press, VAL

3) Take out good travel insurance

If there’s one thing travelers really need to do, it’s buy travel insurance. Most people think of insurance as a way to cover themselves against flight cancellations or theft of personal items. But if you get sick or injured abroad – or even if you die – insurance is vital. The Australian government cannot just step in and pay for a medical evacuation.

From my time as consular chief, I know that some Australians have been forced to sell their homes to cover their medical costs abroad. People are also often underinsured, or surprised to learn that certain activities, such as adventure sports, are not covered.

Young people are the least likely to take out insurance. Surveys in the travel industry indicate that about 12% of travelers under 30 do not intend to purchase insurance, and the number is higher for those heading to destinations in the developed world that are considered “safe”. But it really doesn’t work that way – hospitalization in the United States without insurance can spell financial disaster.

It doesn’t take much to reduce the risk that difficulties abroad turn into disaster.

Read more: Relief as Australian Sean Turnell is released from prison in Myanmar, but more needs to be done

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