Australians are once again returning to the world. The numbers are still below pre-pandemic levels, but almost in December last year – up from 1.3 million in December 2019.
According to information provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, passport applications broke records in 2022, averaging more than 250,000 each month in the second half of the year.
International travel is a safe and positive experience for most people, but unfortunately things go wrong for some travelers. Trouble, when it does arise, can involve anything from lost passports and petty theft to serious welfare issues, hospitalizations and arrests.
In these cases, DFAT Consular should do what they can to help. But where does personal responsibility begin and end when we leave our shores? What should we expect from our government and what can we do ourselves to minimize the risks?
Travelers behave badly
As a former head of the consular service in the early 2000s, I know that the workload involving Australians overseas is not limited to major news stories, such as the recent of an Australian-based academic by a criminal gang in Papua New Guinea, or the impact of in Türkiye and Syria on Australians and their families.
These were serious situations requiring intensive work by our diplomats, but there is much more to do than that.
an average of four Australians died overseas every day, while an average of two Australians were arrested every day – for matters ranging from immigration offenses to drug-related crime, theft and fraud.
A total of nearly 16,000 Australians turned to their local Australian Mission Abroad that year for help in ‘crisis cases’ – more than triple the number in 2018-19 before the pandemic . COVID-related repatriations arranged by DFAT were counted separately — there have been more than 62,000 over the past three years.
Having an Australian passport means we can rely on a consular service to . But traveler expectations have risen over the past few decades, in part because of the speed of our communications and the instant public feedback we receive through social media.
While most Australians are self-driving travellers, there are still many who fail to live up to their end of the bargain. More importantly, too many still do not have proper travel insurance. Others ignore official travel advisories and then turn to the government for help when things go wrong.
Then there are those whose expectations are simply inappropriate – asking officials to book opera tickets or look after their pets, for example.
More seriously, expectations can be very difficult to manage in foreign arrest cases. Some Australians are shocked that their citizenship does not come with a ‘free jail card’. But we are all subject to local laws and authorities, whatever notions we may have about the standards of justice that apply in certain countries.
At any time, there is between abroad. Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, there are real in such cases.
The service will periodically check the welfare of prisoners abroad, guide them to local legal representation and monitor their trials. But that’s about all. This also applies to foreigners imprisoned in Australia.
Certainly, sometimes there is a case that is clearly so arbitrary or unjust that our government demands the release of the individual. This was the case for Sean Turnell, for political reasons until his release last year. But unlike Turnell, most Australian prisoners overseas probably have a case to answer.
Three ways to stay safe
Be informed of your destination.
Australians have a responsibility to know what is happening in their intended destinations. Conflicts in Ukraine and elsewhere have impacted many travellers, as have major weather events and natural disasters.
With international flights returning to normal over the past year, DFAT’s COVID repatriation program has largely come to an end. Travelers must once again turn to their own resources – or their travel insurance policies – to ensure they get home.
The government is a trusted source of up-to-date information on everything from emerging health risks to cultural and legal issues in specific countries to the local security situation. They recently launched a in an effort to emphasize the importance of staying out of trouble in the first place.
Stay in touch with your family back home.
The consular service handles hundreds of “locate” requests every year. And if disaster strikes when you are traveling somewhere, your family and friends will be worried.
In each of the major consular disaster responses in which I have been involved, including the September 11 attacks and the 2002 Bali bombings, people have caused untold grief to their loved ones by not letting them know that they were safe.
In my latest book, I tell the story of an Australian who worked on an upper floor of the World Trade Center in New York, but who took ten days to let his family know that he was indeed in London at the time of the attacks.
Buy good travel insurance.
If there’s one thing travelers should really do, it’s get travel insurance. Most people think of insurance as a way to cover themselves in the event of a flight cancellation or theft of personal items. But if you fall ill or are injured abroad – or even in the event of death – insurance is essential. The Australian government cannot simply step in and pay for medical evacuation.
From my time as Chief Consular, I know that some Australians have been forced to sell their homes to cover medical expenses overseas. People also often find themselves underinsured or are surprised to learn that certain activities, such as adventure sports, are not covered.
Young people are the least likely to buy insurance. indicate that around 12% of travelers under the age of 30 do not intend to purchase insurance, and the number is higher for those heading to destinations in the developed world that are considered “safe”. It really doesn’t work that way – being hospitalized in the US without insurance can spell financial disaster.
It doesn’t take much to minimize the risk of difficulties turning into disasters abroad.
Ian Kemish is an assistant professor in the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland. He is a former high-ranking Australian diplomat who headed the Australian consular service from 2000 to 2004. His book The Consul was published by UQP in 2022.