Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Evacuation of Australian citizens from Sudan, passport processing times.

Kieran Gilbert: Let's go live now to the Assistant Foreign Minister, Tim Watts, who joins me from Melbourne. Minister, thanks for your time. Did this evacuation go according to plan?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, good to be with you, Kieran. Yes, the evacuation went very well. We're very proud of the operation that we pursued in collaboration with close partners to evacuate 67 individuals, including 36 Australians from the Port of Sudan to Cyprus. A crisis response team from the Department of Foreign Affairs accompanied that flight into the country and they have followed that flight through to Cyprus and are helping Australians plan their onwards travel.

The situation in Sudan remains dangerous and volatile, but Australia's consular arrangements are working, providing pathways for Australians to leave the country.

Now we have 191 Australians who have left that conflict, and 141 remaining in the country, including 34 who are awaiting further departure from the Port of Sudan.

Kieran Gilbert: Okay, so how many Australians remain in total in Sudan, as far as you're aware?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: So, we have 141 Australians registered in Sudan across the country, and that includes 34 who are in the Port Sudan awaiting departure.

There are ferries leaving from Port Sudan to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, and it's a well-travelled pathway that Australian consular officials are supporting.

Kieran Gilbert: There was an evacuation last week as well from an airfield north of Khartoum. Is that now closed due to not being used by our partners and not our air force either, because of the conflict that's ongoing?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Yes. Earlier on the conflict, the Wadi Sayyidna airfield just to the north of Khartoum was the site of many airlift departures from that conflict, operated by partner countries on which there were many seats available for Australians to depart.

And we do want to thank countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Indonesia, Norway, UAE, an international coalition that's helped to get people of all nationalities, including Australians, out of that conflict.

But you're right to say, Kieran, that that airfield is no longer safe for departures. And we are advising all Australians who may still be in Khartoum to not travel to the Wadi Sayyidna airfield anymore.

Kieran Gilbert: Given we don't have a diplomatic presence there, how are you doing things on the ground? How are you finding out information and dealing with our citizens there?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, you're quite right. We don't have an embassy in Khartoum, which I think makes the Australian consular response here quite extraordinary.

We've been operating in difficult, dangerous and volatile conditions and Australian consular officials have been working around the clock - and it's been an extraordinary effort, and they've done this in collaboration with partner countries.

So, we've had Australians embedded with the consular crisis response for the United Kingdom. We've had Australians working very closely in nearby capital cities, in Cyprus, in Djibouti, in Jeddah and in Cairo, all supporting this very complex operation in a dangerous and volatile situation.

I'm really proud of the efforts that Australian consular officials have put into ensuring that Australians caught up in this very difficult conflict, through no fault of their own, have pathways out of that conflict back to safety, back to Australia.

Kieran Gilbert: Yeah. And those officials doing it in difficult circumstances, as you say, it's a conflict zone in that country.

Let me ask you about this other issue that we discussed over several occasions. In the wake of COVID-19, the passport backlogs as everyone wanted to renew passports after a couple of years of no travel. It seems that those backlogs have now been removed, that people can get back to getting their documents sorted quickly. Is that fair to say?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, that's right, Kieran. We inherited a really big mess with the backlog of passport applications and that caused the processing times for passports to blow out quite significantly as Australians return to international travel after the COVID-19 pandemic.

But I'm very pleased to say that processing times for passports are now back to what they were before the COVID period.

So, you can make a passport application and expect to get it back in about the same amount of time now as you would have before COVID-19. That said, there are still a very large number of passports out there that still haven't been renewed from the COVID-19 period.

So, we are advising Australians to, if you are planning an international trip, to still plan ahead and get your passport application in early, because we are still processing significantly higher volumes of passports than the past. But the important thing to know is that we are currently processing those passports at about the same time frame as we were before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kieran Gilbert: Assistant Foreign Minister Tim Watts. Thanks

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