Interview with Bridget Brennan, ABC News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Consular support for overseas travel, Hamas-Israel conflict, humanitarian assistance

Bridget Brennan: Let's head to Canberra now, because new data out shows more than 9,000 Australians needed consular support in the last financial year. That's one call every 11 minutes to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Let's get more and bring in the Assistant Foreign Minister, Tim Watts, from Canberra. Minister, good morning to you. Just take us through – this is a huge volume of calls and Australians needing assistance. We know Australians are heading back overseas since the pandemic. Just take us through, what kind of crises are Australians facing when they are overseas.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, good morning, Bridget. Yes, this Consular State of Play Report shows all the ways that we are helping Australians who run into trouble overseas to stay safe. You know, there's a story behind every one of those 9,200 Australians who needed consular assistance in the last two years – in the last financial year.

Some of those stories are just the everyday troubles that you might run into on a trip overseas, you know, a lost passport, a hospitalisation, you might have been a victim of crime, but some of those stories are stories of Australians caught up in extraordinary circumstances, and the extraordinary efforts that Australian consular officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have gone to to help them.

So Australians caught up in the conflict in Sudan, for example, or Australians caught up in the war in Ukraine, or that terrible earthquake in Türkiye. You know, half of Australians are born overseas or have a parent born overseas, so we're intensely connected with the world in good times and in bad.

So, our government wants to do everything that we can do to help Australians stay safe while they're overseas.

Bridget Brennan: We've been hearing about a really tragic story facing two Australian women who believe they were needle‑spiked while they were overseas and then subsequently sexually assaulted. We understand the Department has updated some information. Is this a growing area for concern, and what would be your advice, particularly to young women travelling overseas?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, there are a wide range of security challenges, safety challenges that Australians could face while they're overseas. The best advice that we have for Australians is to make your first destination before you go overseas. The Smartraveller website provides travel advice on more than 170 destinations around the world, and it aggregates all of that intelligence, all of that expertise that our Foreign Affairs network has about destinations around the world.

So, that will include information about entry requirements, for example, the visas you need, but it also includes security information, so information around things to be careful of, to watch out for in a particular destination. It's the way that you can arm yourself to avoid needing consular assistance while you're overseas and make that trip a good one.

Bridget Brennan: Just turning to the situation in Israel and Gaza now, do we know how many Australians are still needing assistance, or would still like to return to Australia? Do we know how many citizens are still stuck in that region, Minister?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Yes. It's extremely difficult for anyone to leave Gaza at the moment, and Australian diplomats have been involved in a full-court press with regional countries and with other countries of influence in the region to try and create the conditions necessary to leave Gaza.

We thank countries like the United States, like Egypt, like Qatar for their work in this regard, and you know, we're pleased and relieved that 131 Australians have been able to leave Gaza over that Rafah Crossing into Egypt, but we're still supporting 67 Australians in Gaza who do want to leave.

Now, we're in constant contact with them, trying to provide them with the best advice that we can about how to stay safe, and we'll continue to push as hard as we can with countries in the region to get them that permission that they need to leave.

Now, Australians who have left Gaza have been met by consular officials on the border at Egypt, in Cairo, they've been provided with those necessities of life, you know, nappies and baby formula for young mums and kids, and assisted with accommodation and advice on onwards travel.

So, you know, we're there for these Australians, we're doing all that we can for them. It's a dire humanitarian situation on the ground there, and we really want to get them to safety as soon as we can.

Bridget Brennan: It certainly is, and overnight the UN Chief called this again, reiterated that this is a humanitarian catastrophe. There have been some days of relative calm during the ceasefire, the pause, rather. Is it time for Australia to call for a full permanent ceasefire in Gaza and Israel?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, you're right that the humanitarian situation on the grounds there is absolutely dire, and that's why we've provided $25 million of humanitarian assistance, and you know, to provide food, water, medical care, fuel for people in Gaza.

We've been saying that we need to see steps towards a sustainable ceasefire, but that – that can't be one-sided, so we need to see release the hostages, protection of civilians, and humanitarian access.

It's really pleasing that during the pause, you know, we've seen, you know, significant steps towards that, and we'd support an extension of that pause. But you know, really, this crisis, to get a durable long-term solution, we need to be working towards that two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in secure borders recognised by the international community and peace and prosperity.

It feels like a long way away at the moment, but that's where we need to go.

Bridget Brennan: Tim Watts in Canberra, thanks for your time this morning.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thank you.

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