Archive for November, 2011

Why Consular Service Matters? An Australian Perspective

by Juan Enriquez Dayang, Jr.

The Australian National University



When Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd appears on You Tube to advise Australians who are planning on attending the Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand to visit the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) website for travel tips, travel bulletin and register their travel for any emergency, Rudd is primarily giving top priority to the safety and well-being of Australians as part of DFAT’s consular function.

Why does consular service matters to governments and citizens?

The primary function of consuls is to promote state interest, in particular trade and commercial interest and protect and assist nationals apart from issuing travel documents such as passports and visas and legalization of papers. Consular representation predates the modern state system and certainly the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations of 1963 which codifies the role and functions of consulates and its representatives.

Consular assistance is a significant undertaking of foreign ministries. As people continue to move outside of their countries of origin in a more globalized world, public demand for consular service grows. As more complex issues arise due to travel and migration, the more complex and responsive consular services are required.

Many are familiar with high-profile cases concerning citizens in trouble overseas such as the victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center bombings in New York City and the Bali bombings in the tourist district of Kuta that killed 202 people including 88 Australians and 38 Indonesians. In 2011, we have seen governments providing assistance to their citizens who are caught in harm’s way either in natural calamities such as the tsunami in Japan or in conflict zones during the “Arab Spring.” For example, Australia, Canada, Greece, the Philippines, Turkey and the U.S., were some of the countries who evacuated their citizens who were trapped in strife-torn Egypt during the mass protest that toppled the Mubarak regime. It followed large scale repatriations conducted by nations such as Australia and the Philippines when thousands of Lebanese-Australians and Filipino migrant workers fled Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006. These are often very severe cases and highly charged. Yet, the immensity of consular work is rarely recognized widely and few people know how broad and complex consular activities are. For emigrant countries like India, Mexico and the Philippines, consular protection of migrants and engagement with diaspora communities through consular networks matter a lot. But even for immigrant countries like Australia, consular service is a core task of DFAT.

How have countries as exemplified by the Australian experience, a nation of travelers, made consular affairs a core task of the foreign ministry?

As a nation of travelers, current statistics estimate that more than 3.5 million Australians – which account for almost 20 per cent of the population – travel abroad each year. Although Australians who travel, work, and study abroad generally do not need consular assistance from the Embassies and consulates, they still face risks and occasional difficulties when traveling overseas. In these situations, Australia’s DFAT attends to its citizens in trouble to assuage the public pressure for government’s quick response and immediate assistance to citizens in distress.

Consular officers of Australia perform many of the same functions as other diplomatic personnel such as issuance of passports, legalization or notarization of documents, etc. However, an important role of consular affairs is to assist Australian in emergency situations and provide critical legal assistance and jail visitation for those charged with criminal offense. For example, the case of the 14-year old boy, the youngest Australian to be arrested in Indonesia, for drug possession in Bali in October 2011 prompted Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd to declare that negotiating the release of the Australian schoolboy on possible charges is a ‘number one’ priority. Rudd said that:

“I have just spoken with our ambassador in Jakarta [Greg Moriarty] and I have indicated to him that his number one priority in the immediate period ahead is how we support this young boy and his family and do everything we can to obtain his early return to Australia.”

Consular service is for everyone. Even arrested Wiki leaks founder Julian Assange was promised consular assistance in 2010 including consular visits and any other types of consular help concerning his well being and legal rights by Foreign Minister Rudd who said that:

“What we do with Australians in strife anywhere in the world is that we take the view that our responsibility is to ensure the consular rights and legal rights of all Australians abroad are protected. And that includes Mr. Assange.”

As a matter of prevention, DFAT issues travel advisories to Australians similar to advisories issued by US State Department. According to William Maley of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy of the Australian National University, travel advisory “points to a new form of consular activity that was not specifically contemplated by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963″.

Some of the programs of DFAT include the ‘Smart Traveller’, the 24-hour consular hotline, and the crisis response team. With ‘Smart Traveller’ Australians could register their details online for easy tracking in case of a crisis situation and be updated through Facebook and Twitter. The ‘Smart Traveller’ has helped in “chasing” or locating Australians abroad, especially those who are caught in natural disasters such as the tsunamis in Thailand, earthquake in New Zealand and Japan as well as in areas of conflict and attacks such as the Bali Bombing in Indonesia, and in the recent political crisis in Egypt.


Australia’s DFAT takes the lead role in crisis situations overseas. It has a well-organized and well-funded corps of able DFAT personnel, formed in cadres of about 10 officers and staff. These e lite cadres are prepared to operate at a moment’s notice. It shows the high priority given by the DFAT in emergency assistance to its citizens in distress. The policy is backed up by financial resources worth US$12M over a ten-year period which is used for technology, staffing requirements, and ways to improve the system.

The consular emergency unit of Australia’s foreign affairs ministry is equipped with a conference room with multiple video screens and computers hooked to the internet and cable TV to monitor a particular crisis situation. The unit holds inter-agency meetings at DFAT and tele-conferences with Ambassadors stationed in crisis zones for updates and instructions. Even without a crisis, two people monitor emergency cases. For example, if they are alerted of a plane crash overseas, they immediately inform the relevant Embassy or Consulate for verification of any Australian casualty and briefs the press office with prepared talking points.



There is a positive correlation between travel and migration and consular service. The increase of people moving from one country to another facilitates the interconnectedness of the world economy. This translates to higher demand for consular service. As there are people who may be in vulnerable situations overseas either due to man-made or natural disasters, citizens require consular protection to defend their lives from harm or their rights from abuse.

The Australian case provides an example of how consular affairs matters to foreign ministries and citizens. The readiness of DFAT to act and manage crisis through consular assistance run a gamut of intervention from “chasing” Australian tourists missing in a beach resort in Southeast Asia or providing legal advice to citizens who have encounters with the law.

Governments are giving more priority to consular services as public demand increases for consular assistance. The reports of media on citizens’ facing troubles overseas fan increase demand for government response and responsibility to assist nationals overseas. As such, Embassy and consular networks are the primary interlocutors of the state with its citizen’s overseas. As there will be more people who will be working overseas or decide to permanently migrate, engagement with their communities to link them with their hometowns will be another feature of consular work. Governments will also grapple with the problem of irregular migration and consular networks provide the necessary assistance in protecting the rights of vulnerable migrants and either by facilitating their legalization process, rescuing them from harm, or assist them in their smooth repatriation in partnership among countries of origin, transit, and destination.

Consular affairs as a dimension of diplomacy has become a core task of foreign ministries. Saving peoples lives and defending the rights of citizens are high in the agenda of governments. There are plenty of opportunities for scholarship in the field of consular diplomacy and a rewarding career awaits Foreign Service officers who desire to serve their country and people. Indeed, consular service matters not only to governments but to citizens. This is the human dimension of diplomacy.


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This article was published by the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office Newsletter in October 2011. See:

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