This Strategy is an important milestone in keeping the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) at the forefront of international standards in the delivery of consular services and assistance. It sets the department's consular priorities firmly in the context of the Government's vision of how best to assist Australians to plan and prepare for their safety when they travel, and to take responsibility for their welfare when travelling. It highlights the department's investment in highly trained and dedicated staff, who are committed to helping Australians in serious difficulties overseas. And it provides the framework to keep building on innovation and new technology to meet future challenges, maintaining a world class standard of consular services.
Australian Consular Services
Australians have a reputation as travellers and adventure seekers—millions of us travel, do business, study or move overseas every year.
Most Australians avoid incidents or accidents overseas, but many experience difficulties or emergencies, some serious. Many face complex legal and other issues, for example stemming from medical tourism, child abduction across legal systems or transnational terrorism.
Providing an efficient and cost-effective service to Australian citizens in distress overseas is one of the Government's foreign policy priorities.
It is a fundamental aspect of the work of the foreign affairs and trade portfolio. Through the network of overseas posts managed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Austrade, we carry out a range of functions, including:
- assisting Australian citizens in difficulty overseas, including in situations involving serious injury, illness or death, and arrest and detention;
- providing support during crisis situations and international emergencies;
- delivering information and advice to help Australians help themselves and avoid difficulties overseas;
- issuing passports and travel documents to Australian citizens; and
- offering a limited range of notarial services, such as witnessing and legalising documents and administering oaths and affirmations (fees apply).
We are not responsible for visas for overseas travel. Obtaining visas from relevant foreign embassies and consulates in Australia is the responsibility of travellers.
The changing consular role
Changes in society and technology have led to more Australians travelling and greater public scrutiny of the consular role. Information technology advances have put information and communication at the fingertips of travellers, generating expectations for prompt, responsive and accessible service.
The department's consular role receives positive media attention when it is perceived to 'rescue' citizens, but attracts public criticism and negative media comment when it is considered to have failed to meet unrealistic expectations regarding the assistance that can be provided to citizens in difficulty overseas.
There is a need to help Australians understand consular assistance better, while improving our systems to support high quality consular services and assistance into the future.
We are committed to providing modern, efficient and cost-effective support to Australian citizens overseas:
We will have in place professional, trained consular staff to deliver services and assistance effectively.
We will deliver our assistance and services through our network of Australian embassies, high commissions and consulates, our honorary consuls, staff in DFAT Canberra and in some circumstances through our close consular partner countries.
We will strive to capitalise on new technologies and new media so that we can respond promptly and deliver our services efficiently.
We will continue to be responsive to all requests for assistance, but there is no right to consular assistance and there may be variations in the level of assistance provided across the network, depending on local circumstances.
We will promote a culture of self-reliance, personal responsibility and self-help among Australians travelling and living overseas.
We will strive to achieve efficiencies in our systems and change some of our practices to direct resources to those Australians who are the most vulnerable or those involved in very serious cases, and to respond better to the changing needs of travellers and crisis situations.
We will take into account the treatment of an individual by reference to universal human rights standards in making decisions on the level of consular assistance to provide.
We will expand international cooperation to extend the reach of our services and enhance best practice globally.
Development of the Strategy
The development of this three-year Consular Strategy is the culmination of
several months of work, which included:
- a public consultation process, in which we sought comment and input on an issues paper;
- canvassing views of front-line consular officers in Canberra and across our overseas network; and
- holding consultations with partners in private and non-governmental organisations and special interest groups.
Several themes emerged from this consultation process:
- Australians are generally a self-reliant lot and, with the right guidance and information, should be encouraged and supported to do more to help themselves when they run into problems overseas;
- there are some public misunderstandings about what ‘consular' means, but wide recognition that consular resources are finite and acceptance that priority should be accorded to highly vulnerable persons, those in high risk situations and very serious cases;
- there is value in tapping into the expertise of other organisations and building more partnerships to deliver the most cost-effective services; and
- there is scope to modernise and streamline our services, improve our client handling processes and make our travel information and advice more user-friendly and accessible.
Modernising and adapting our services
The services and standards of service that Australians can expect from the department are outlined in the ‘Consular Services Charter: Assisting Australians Overseas' (the Charter). We have updated the Charter to make it easier to understand, explain why we can or cannot offer a particular service and reflect the core features of the Consular Strategy 2014–16.
Promoting a culture of responsible travelling
- We will lift our public messaging to underscore the importance of adequate planning and preparation for overseas travel – including appropriate travel and medical insurance;
- we may limit assistance to consular clients who knowingly engage in behaviour that is illegal or to individuals who deliberately and/or repeatedly engage in reckless or negligent behaviour that puts themselves or others at risk; and
- the Government may in the future consider options to recover costs of providing consular assistance in some circumstances.
Raising public awareness of travel issues
Australians need to make careful decisions around their own safety and wellbeing when they are overseas:
- our Smartraveller public information campaigns will continue to focus on helping Australians understand how they can minimise some of the risks involved in overseas travel;
- we will refresh our smartraveller.gov.au site to make information more concise and accessible;
- we will produce advisories targeted at the needs of vulnerable and high risk groups;
- we will expand our presence in new social media so that Australians have more ways to communicate with us;
- we will work with the private sector, parliamentarians and non-government bodies to improve public understanding of consular work; and
- our overseas diplomatic missions will continue to engage in local awareness-raising, focussing on issues specific to that country and region.
Providing more assistance to those who need it most
- We will improve our capacity to assist those who are most at risk; to do this, we will develop a ‘vulnerability matrix' so that consular staff are able to better assess cases and rapidly identify actions required; and
- we will dedicate resources to handle women's and children's cases, we will strengthen our capacity to assist victims of trauma and will develop our capacity to manage consular cases in which mental health is an issue.
Striving to improve our services
- We will introduce modifications to our registration system to make it easier to use;
- we will make maximum use of technology to enable us to deliver services more widely and efficiently; and
- we will streamline processes to improve consistency in our processing of notarials.
Improving training, development and skills
- We will support and train our staff to ensure a highly-skilled, professional cadre of consular officers; and
- we will strengthen our 24/7 Consular Emergency Centre in DFAT Canberra.
Assistance in international crises and emergencies
Over the last decade or so, Australians have been affected by an increasing number of overseas crises and emergencies, most recently the tragedy of MH17 in Ukraine.
Since the Bali bombings, we have focused on developing professionalised and whole-of-government systems to respond to crises involving Australian citizens and Australian interests overseas, including through:
- robust and dedicated crisis response structures and systems, such as a modern Crisis Centre (in the department), a trained crisis cadre and professional emergency response teams;
- better crisis-related IT tools and better use of social media;
- regularised contingency planning; and
- improvements in how we work with close consular partner governments, focussing on regions where Australia's diplomatic presence is thin.
We are committed to continuously improving our crisis management systems and procedures. We build on lessons learned from every crisis to prepare for future crises.
There are limits to the assistance we can provide in some types of crises and emergencies so we encourage all Australians to take sensible precautions, to read and follow our travel advice and take responsibility for their own safety, particularly if they are travelling to or living in a high risk area or engaged in high risk activities.
We will improve our advice to Australians on the terms and conditions of government-assisted evacuations, emphasising the need for individual responsibility and that priority will always be accorded to the most vulnerable individuals.
We will build stronger relationships with non-government groups and individuals on the ground, both to gather reliable information and to support practical responses during a crisis.
Assessing progress and seeking input
The launch of our three-year strategy is the initial phase of a longer journey that will deliver modern, efficient and cost-effective consular services and assistance.
We will implement ongoing measures to track our progress, including broadening opportunities for public input into, and understanding of, Australian consular services. We will further develop our processes for obtaining regular direct feedback and use the information gathered to drive a process of continuous improvement in our systems.
To broaden public understanding of the consular role, we will publish an annual ‘State of Play on Consular Services' report that will include data on recent trends and selected case studies.
We will improve our cooperation and dialogue with private sector groups to expand our messaging and to build better partnerships. We will expand the membership and mandate of the existing Smartraveller Consultative Group to equip it to perform the role as the key stakeholder outreach body on consular matters.