Consular State of Play 2021-22 launch
Thanks Jan, I too start by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respect to Elders, past and present.
I also acknowledge any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here with us today.
And I'd like to reaffirm the Australian Government's commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.
Consular side of global challenges
I'm really glad to be here at DFAT today because the consular work this Department does on behalf of Australians in trouble overseas is so important.
In the last full year before COVID, 2018-19, there were more than 13,000 consular cases.
In 2021-22, even though traveller numbers were far lower, more than 34,000 Australians and their families sought consular and crisis support.
The last three years have been extraordinarily challenging, both at home and overseas.
Here in Australia, we've had the Black Summer bushfires, the local impact of the COVID pandemic and, as we see day by day, flood after flood after flood.
Globally, the pandemic has been profoundly destabilising, and the global economy is in pretty bad shape.
Adding to that, we've had geopolitical instability, political crises and even conflict, the most awful of course being the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine.
That massive amount of environmental and geopolitical upheaval has added immensely to the consular load.
The importance of consular work
With Australians being inveterate travellers, it's inevitable that some of us will encounter unexpected problems while overseas.
This publication tells that story of when and how things didn't go to plan.
Unexpected injuries, deaths or hospitalisations; people going missing, being arrested, imprisoned or finding themselves the victims of theft or assault. These things unfortunately happen all the time.
COVID added immensely to that challenge.
And with the borders closed, many Australians faced difficult challenges trying to return home – dramatically increasing the range of challenges they faced.
Nearly 50,000 assisted COVID-19 returns over two years to the end of 2020-21, and a further 12,377 in 2021-22 have kept the total number of consular cases high.
And even as we might have expected the overall numbers to start to fall back down again with the re-opened borders, major international crises have also come into play.
Australian consular officials went to extraordinary lengths to look after the safety of thousands of Australians, residents, and their families.
During 2021-22, there were nearly 16,000 crisis cases supported, including to people in the evacuation of Afghanistan and the conflict in Ukraine.
These sorts of crises can be extraordinarily testing, and they see DFAT staff operating hand in glove with a wide range of Australian agencies, from Border Force to Defence and other foreign government partners.
If Australians don't know the sort of work these agencies are doing on our behalf, they should.
Australian consular officials have shown incredible resilience, persistence and ingenuity in helping Australians caught up in these recent crises.
A great example is the extraordinary crisis team despatched to Poland early in the Ukraine invasion, who did amazing work liaising with Ukrainian military, officials and local funeral directors to recover the remains of an Australian, Michael O'Neill, who was killed at the front line.
All the while providing invaluable support to Australians fleeing the conflict.
At the same time, the rest of the consular work continues:
- providing assistance and guidance in person
- over the phone,
- and online to Australians around the world.
At any one time, DFAT can be supporting around 1,250 active consular cases.
I saw this first-hand in Bali last month during the 20th anniversary of the bombings – I was very moved by the deep commitment to supporting the survivors and their families, all these years on.
So I'd like to pay tribute to the amazing consular work undertaken by Australian officials in recent times, when every system has been pushed to the limit.
Getting back to travel
Now, as 2022 comes to an end, borders have opened back up, and we're seeing more and more Australians getting back into overseas travel.
In September 2022 alone, there were over one million Australian departures for overseas trips.
That's around 4 per cent of our total population, heading overseas, every month.
And that's great news.
So I want to take this opportunity to encourage Australians, when they do travel, to travel safely, and wisely.
First and foremost, take out travel insurance.
If you can't afford travel insurance, you can't afford to travel.
Few countries have the sort of publicly-funded health system we do here in Australia.
So it's very easy for unexpected medical costs overseas to go from zero to eyewatering in a matter of moments, as some of the stories in the Consular State of Play remind us.
And secondly, be prepared before you travel.
A particular challenge at present is the growing number of consular cases involving mental health episodes.
The mental health challenges we are seeing in Australia, partly due to the stresses and disruption of the pandemic, does not stop at the border.
Ensuring travellers are well supported and well-prepared to face mental health challenges that may arise during travel is key, and there are tips and advice on the Smartraveller website.
Smartraveller should be the start of every international trip.
It offers essential advice on security, safety entry requirements and local laws in 178 destinations.
Subscribe to its updates – so you can be one of the millions of Australians who travel overseas and return home safe and sound.
Smartraveller is also launching an Instagram page today to raise awareness with a new audience. You can follow it – the handle is @Smartraveller.
With our highly connected generations of digital natives, this will be a new way to share travel tips and cultural advice for young travelling Australians.
Australia's young people are almost as diverse as it is possible to imagine, with appetites for travel and cultural links that take them to every part of the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
So it's great to see DFAT reaching out to younger Australians, who as we know are on the front line of digital engagement.
Thank you all for coming today – it really is great to take a moment to acknowledge the significant work of our consular officers in Australia and overseas, and the collective efforts of all of our partners.
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555