Senator Nita Green – Estimates questions regarding consular assistance for Australians (and others) in Israel and Palestine

October 26, 2023

I want to ask about the preparation for assisted departure flights. Can you confirm when the Minister for Foreign Affairs directed the department to work on options to assist the departure of Australians who wanted to leave Israel or the occupied Palestinian territories?

Senator GREEN: I want to ask about the preparation for assisted departure flights. Can you confirm when the Minister for Foreign Affairs directed the department to work on options to assist the departure of Australians who wanted to leave Israel or the occupied Palestinian territories?

Mr Maclachlan : Yes. We were working on this from Monday 9 October.

Senator GREEN: That was pretty quick. I’m assuming that that direction included consideration of assisted departure flights.

Mr Maclachlan : Correct.

Senator GREEN: When were the assisted departure flights for Australians seeking to leave first announced?

Mr Maclachlan : They were announced on Wednesday 11 October.

Senator GREEN: What were the destinations of those first flights, and which airlines were used?

Mr Maclachlan : As I mentioned earlier, we took a multitasked approach, ADF flights as well as commercial charters. We had eight flights in total, and the first flight was a Qantas charter from Tel Aviv to London. It was the first of what were planned to be two flights out of Tel Aviv, but Qantas’s second flight was unable to be flown. Of the remaining seven flights, two were commercial charters and five were ADF flights, and they were Tel Aviv to Dubai.

Senator GREEN: Were passengers required to pay?

Mr Maclachlan : No.

Senator GREEN: I think you alluded to this in the opening statement: I understand the flights were to multiple destinations. What assistance was provided to Australians once they landed, particularly in the European countries?

Mr Maclachlan : In the case of Australians taking the Qantas flight to London, my recollection is Qantas provided accommodation for those Australians and then Qantas also provided a flight from London in cooperation with us via Dubai to Sydney and took passengers who’d gone from Tel Aviv to London and then through Dubai. We picked up more passengers there and went on to Sydney.

Senator GREEN: How did you work with those host governments like the UAE to ensure Australians and other nationals could get those onward flights?

Mr Maclachlan : I might ask my colleague Ms Spencer to detail some of the cooperation.

Ms Spencer : We worked very closely with the UAE and the UK, through our posts, and other regional countries in relation to clearances for flights. Despite the work we did, some of the airlines we used didn’t have established relationships or established flights into those regions. We worked with those authorities to get the assistance, support and approvals we needed to make that happen, as well as making them aware of our plans for onward travel.

We also got great support, particularly from the United Arab Emirates, in assisting with entry of Pacific island nationals, in particular, who we needed to bring through Dubai who did not necessarily have entry rights, to ensure that we were able to make that happen. I’d also note that, in relation to facilitation in those third countries, we did have medical support provided. Our posts facilitated accommodation and transport arrangements. We also had consular officers on the flights to provide any additional support required.

Senator GREEN: How many flights have there been in total?

Mr Maclachlan : Eight flights plus the flight from London, and then we had a Qatar flight from Dubai to Sydney. Emirates facilitated a flight and then the final flight was a RAAF KC-30 from Dubai into Perth. I want to acknowledge the work of Qantas and Virgin domestically to help people get from the landing points to their home destinations.

Senator GREEN: When was the decision made to no longer offer additional flights?

Mr Maclachlan : Throughout the crisis we were tracking the take-up rate of our flights. We had advice regarding it, and I can’t quite remember the exact date, but I think it was following the last flight on Thursday 16 October that we determined the demand was not there for further flights, noting that there were other options throughout that time and there continue to be.

Senator GREEN: You’ve stepped through that essentially the demand tapered off, but I assume there are still options for people. Aside from Australian government organised flights, how else are we assisting Australians to depart?

Mr Maclachlan : The first thing to note is that Ben Gurion Airport has continued to operate throughout this time, albeit at reduced flight levels and seat availability and higher costs. We are helping people connect with commercial flights. Our partners have also been running flights to ports west of Israel, and they’re available for us to use. However, I would note that most of our partners have also ceased those flights now. There’s one in particular that we’re working with.

Ms Spencer : I need to correct the record. The last flight was on 19 October.

Senator GREEN: Thank you. Your opening statement ran through the assistance for Pacific nationals. Did the support also include getting them home if they wanted to?

Mr Maclachlan : Yes. We assisted 159 Pacific nationals—79 from the Solomons, 18 from Vanuatu, 21 from Samoa, 30 from Fiji and 11 from PNG. I’d like to acknowledge that a Fijian charter flight helped 13 Australians leave the region. We provided support.

Senator GREEN: There are obviously people from different regions you’re working with. In terms of Australians registered with DFAT who have left Israel or the West Bank since 7 October, how many Australians have we assisted?

Mr Maclachlan : We’ve assisted 1,930 to depart.

Senator Wong: We gave the numbers of assisted and departed, but ‘assisted departure’ has a particular meaning in the department’s analysis or data. As you may have experienced—I certainly did and other members of parliament did—there were obviously a lot of calls from Australians in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories at the time. I think demand has taperer off, notwithstanding the number of Australian citizens who are still there. There were those who were either visiting or really wanted to leave, and then there is a cohort, who are often dual citizens, permanent residents et cetera, who wish to stay. I know there were a lot of very stressed Australians with relatives here who were contacting the government. Whilst the airport didn’t permanently close and there were some commercial flight options, a lot of commercial options did dry up. I think the American airlines stopped flying quite early. A number of European ones were cancelled. Obviously, people had a number of flights booked. We made the judgement that, notwithstanding that I think El Al was still flying, it was better to get these options and then reduce it to the point where there was very little demand.

Senator GREEN: And that reflects the conversation I had with the local community in Cairns.

Senator Wong: You might’ve been one of the people calling my office, saying, ‘We’ve got people.’

Senator GREEN: On Friday last week, there wasn’t anyone that they knew of that wanted to leave at that stage. I’ll leave it there.

Link to Parliamentary Hansard