Background to the consular strategy
In 2014, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade published its first three-year Consular Strategy.
The 2014-16 Strategy was the culmination of a lengthy process of internal deliberation, stakeholder engagement and public consultation. It provided the framework for the Department’s consular work to the end of 2016, including the principles underpinning the current Smartraveller advertising campaign.
The number of Australians travelling and living overseas has not diminished. In 2015-16, there were more than ten million international departures by Australians.
The Department is now looking ahead to the next three year period, building on the achievements of the first Consular Strategy as well as learning from the setbacks encountered. Consulting the Australians who access our services is an important part of that process.
In 2015-16, the Department managed 15,740 cases. On any given day, we are managing around 1,600 active cases - an increase from around 1,300 active cases at any one time in 2014. In addition to these cases, consular officials provide advice and assistance to many thousands of Australians over the phone and in person, through our staff in Canberra and at overseas posts. We also provide notarial services for Australians and for others requiring documents for Australian purposes.
Most Australians never encounter consular services – either their travel overseas is trouble free or, if they do run into difficulties, they can sort them out themselves or with support of their insurance company, family, friends or employers. But some Australians do seek help from the Government.
What is consular assistance?
When consular officials overseas - working with consular staff in Canberra - help an Australian in difficulty, we open a consular “case”. Some cases are quite straightforward and quickly resolved, such as helping someone who has lost their wallet and passport to get replacement documents and continue on their travels. Other cases are more complex and can take weeks, months or even years to resolve. This can include cases where someone goes missing overseas, where they have been arrested in another country or where they have been victim of a violent crime.
Some issues to address
Who should be able to access consular assistance?
There is no “right” to consular services, nor is there any legislative requirement for the Government to provide those services. It is accepted practice that governments help their citizens abroad in certain situations.
In keeping with the Government’s announcement in the 2016-17 Budget, we will no longer provide consular assistance to Permanent Residents of Australia when they are in their country of nationality. We will also no longer provide assistance to dual nationals when they are in their country of other nationality. We will consider exceptions on a case-by-case basis and in a crisis, but it is in keeping with community expectations that Australians who have access to other means of support should access that support, rather than looking to the Government for help in all circumstances. This approach is in line with some of our closest consular partners, such as the UK and New Zealand.
How do we ensure that we direct our attention to those most in need of assistance?
As foreshadowed in the 2014-16 Consular Strategy, we focus our resources to those Australians who are the most vulnerable or who are involved in very serious cases. We have developed better guidance for consular staff to help them assess the vulnerability of Australians who may be seeking assistance. We are working to improve information available to Australians concerned about someone who has gone missing overseas.
We use Smartraveller to give advice that enables Australians to look after themselves when they travel. And we continue to remind Australians that consular staff are not there to help with minor or trivial matters, such as finding a local hairdresser or looking after luggage. This helps our staff to focus on Australians most in need of assistance.
Is there scope to improve how we help in cases involving mental health concerns?
In the 2014-16 Strategy, we said we would develop our capacity to manage consular cases in which mental health is an issue. A big part of this is trying to get better information out to travellers about the importance of looking after their mental health when they travel, just as they would other aspects of their health and well-being. During Mental Health Week in 2015, we published social media tips to promote mental fitness overseas. We also published a brochure on travelling with mental health conditions, which includes information on self-care as well as explanations of what our consular staff can and cannot do and contact details for emergency help. We have strengthened training for consular staff, including Mental Health First Aid training.
Dealing with mental health issues overseas can be challenging, for the individuals themselves, for their friends and family and for our consular staff. There are real limits to what we can do and this can be very frustrating for family at home. There can also be serious financial implications for travellers who do not have the right travel insurance or who are denied coverage of mental health conditions. We will keep working with the travel and insurance industries to improve information and understanding and we will continue to highlight issues around mental health in our public outreach work.
Despite widespread public information warning about the risks and dangers, we continue to see cases of Australians – often younger travellers, but not always –in trouble overseas because of drugs, including with tragic health consequences. The number of cases of Australians arrested or imprisoned overseas for drug-related offences continues to grow. Penalties for such offences are often much harsher than in Australia and many countries may apply the death penalty for drug-related offences. And yet some Australians continue to use or deal in drugs overseas and they – and their families - suffer the consequences. We continue to explore ways to promote awareness of the risks of getting involved with drugs overseas.
Have improvements to Smartraveller’s virtual presence helped travellers?
Under the 2014-16 Strategy, we expanded and strengthened our virtual presence. We updated and refreshed the Smartraveller website, making it easier to navigate and quicker to find information. We launched an Android app which, together with the IOS app, improves mobile access to this information source. These improvements and the increased messaging from the new campaign of Smartraveller advertising, led to significant increases in the number of visitors to our website. We also saw a doubling of “likes” on Smartraveller Facebook and in the number of Twitter followers.
An important step forward from the 2014-16 Strategy was the launch in June 2016 of account-based registration for Australian travellers. This advance has made registration simpler for users, particularly for travellers who wish to amend or update their registration information. There were some initial glitches as we transitioned to the new system and some are still being worked through, but feedback from users has been largely positive. The key question here is whether a simpler, easier to use system will increase the number of Australians who choose to register and, importantly, to subscribe to our travel advice.
Is there scope to use social media better as a tool to deliver consular services?
We use social media to extend the reach of our safe travel messaging, through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels. Our social media presence has been particularly valuable in fast-moving developments, such as during a major international crisis or event. It has helped us get in touch with Australians more quickly and also help direct them to more detailed information available through our website. But as we continue to work within finite resources, should we be looking at new and innovative ways to use social media to help us deliver services, rather than just information?
We categorise events as a “crisis” when there is an impact on a number of Australians, rather than being an incident that affects an individual. This might be a natural disaster, a terrorist event or a major transport accident such as an air crash. Every crisis is different and how we respond will differ, according to the unique circumstances.
Since 2014, we have worked to improve our contingency planning and crisis preparation. This has included working with other government organisations as well as NGOs and other countries. Public expectations are for fast, accurate and authoritative information about, and responses to, developments overseas. The establishment of the Global Watch Office announced in the 2016-17 Budget will further strengthen the Government’s responsiveness to international events as they happen and will complement the existing high standard of 24/7 consular services provided by the department’s Consular Emergency Centre.
What is the impact of DFAT’s new safe travel messaging?
The current phase of Smartraveller advertising, launched in November 2015, focuses more directly on what Australians can do to plan and prepare for their travel, with the tagline “be informed, be prepared”. This emphasis was a direct result of the 2014-16 Strategy and the feedback we received about our messaging. Early indications are that the new messaging is being well received and is more in keeping with what Australians expect. That is, that the government should not be expected to step in and help out for every little problem but, in most cases, travellers can and should take the necessary steps to look after themselves. This will help us to focus our assistance on those who need it most.
What more can we do to encourage more Australians to purchase appropriate travel insurance?
The importance of travel insurance has been a cornerstone of Smartraveller campaigns for many years. The current campaign has a strong emphasis on making sure that travellers have the right travel insurance, to cover them for whatever they plan to do while overseas. In 2014, we commissioned Choice consumer magazine to produce and publish a travel insurance buying guide. We include links to this valuable resource on the Smartraveller website, to help Australians make informed decisions on this important purchase. There may be scope for further work, particularly addressing issues around travel insurance coverage for mental health-related issues.
How effective are consular feedback mechanisms?
One outcome of the first Consular Strategy was an overhaul of our consular feedback mechanisms. Feedback may come through the dedicated email address (email@example.com) or through other avenues, such as letters to Ministers and other members of parliament or directly to our consular staff. We have reviewed and tightened our procedures for tracking and responding to feedback. We are looking at options to seek feedback more directly, including the possibility of an annual or six monthly survey of Australians who have received consular assistance. In some cases, consular clients have experienced difficult and tragic circumstances and may not wish to be contacted in this way.
Addressing the issues
This discussion paper summarises some of the issues that a new Consular Strategy should address. These are not issues that are unique to Australia – our consular cooperation around the world underlines just how common such challenges are among countries which seek to extend assistance to their citizens when they travel. Countries also work within the limits of what they can do. The Australian government cannot interfere in the sovereign entry and exit or legal processes of another country, for example. Nor can Australian consular officials conduct police investigations or force Australians to comply with the wishes of their concerned families at home. But these requests are often made of our staff. The development of the second Consular Strategy is an important step in helping all Australians understand the consular role, and what we can and cannot do. It is also an important avenue for us to hear from Australian travellers and we invite you to provide your comments.