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Consular assistance goes cyber

200202 dfat

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Building

by Juan  “Jed” E.  Dayang, Jr.*

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade‘s (DFAT)  use of  Information and Communication Technology as a consular tool is worth emulation. Apart from the “Smart Traveller” section in their website,  they use Facebook and Twitter for their travel warnings ( half of Mindanao’s travel warning was recently downgraded) in the effort to protect their citizens overseas.

According to William Maley of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy of the Australian National University, travel advisories “points to a new form of consular activity that was not specifically contemplated by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963”.

An Australian citizen could register their details online for easy tracking in case of a crisis situation. The “Smart Traveller” has helped in “chasing” or locating  Aussies in distant shores 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 Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Australia’s DFAT is ready to act at any given emergency.  Having the lead role in emergency situations overseas, DFAT is well-organised and well-oiled to respond to emergency situations overseas.  To put deeds into words, able DFAT personnel are formed in cadres (pronounced by Aussies as kader) of about 10 DFAT officers and staff.

These élite cadres are ready to act at a moment’s notice. The team, headed by a team leader,  works either in the morning or in night shifts. One cadre works five days in a row and a new team takes over for another five days.  Those who are  part of the consular response team  are given additional compensation.

As an incentive, a team member gets additional allowance per year as a token for their additional work load. The team members are selected and are trained from a pool of personnel. Once there is a crisis, a team member assumes his duty and leaves his usual assignment in the Department.  This goes to show the priority given by the DFAT in providing emergency assistance to its citizens in distress.

The  policy is backed up by financial resources worth $12M  over a ten-year period. The budget allocation is invested in technology, staffing requirements, and new ways to improve the system. DFAT’s consular emergency unit is well equipped. It has a conference room with numerous video screens and computers hooked to the internet and cable TV to monitor the crisis. The Consular unit could hold an inter-agency meeting at DFAT and  tele-conference with Ambassadors who are stationed in crisis areas for updates and instructions.  Apart from the conference room, there is also a dedicated area with more than 10 telephones hooked to computers which mimics a call centre agency. These consular hotline phones are made available for  incoming calls during crisis.    Even without a crisis, there are two people who are in charge of taking care of monitoring emergencies. For example, if the officer-in-charge becomes aware of a plane crash overseas, he immediately informs the relevant Embassy or Consulate to act by verifying any Australian casualty. The press office is alerted and is provided with talking points.  Such readiness includes  a gamut of assistance from “chasing” Australian tourists who may be missing after surfing in a beach resort in Southeast Asia or providing legal advice to Australians who may have an encounter with the law.

(On the diplomatic side, the Australian government cooperates with other nations  through bilateral agreements in holiday-work programs , health care portability, and transfer of sentence persons.)

Word has it that DFAT is now exploring mobile phone apps to prepare for  the near future when Australians will use more smart phones instead of  desktops to check information.

In the era of  cyber age and globalization, citizens are more mobile. The increase in travel and migration of nationals also increases the need for more consular activities. As citizens become more empowered and informed due to ICT, they would require faster and more efficient services from their governments. When overseas, the Embassies and Consulates becomes their city halls.

The use of information technology to improve services of government agencies, including Ministries of Foreign Affairs, particular in consular affairs of both developed and developing countries,  is not only timely but necessary.

*the author paid a visit to the consular affairs section of DFAT for his research on consular diplomacy. He was given  a tour of the consular emergency unit of DFAT by the Assistant Secretary  and was treated to a cuppa a latte. (12 July 2011)

For a more scholarly study on travel warnings read William Maley, ‘Risk, Populism, and the Evolution of Consular Responsibilities’, in Jan Melissen and Ana Mar Hernandez (eds), Consular Affairs and Diplomacy (Leiden: Nijhoff Publishers, 2011), pp. 43-62.

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