Tim Watts MP – consular support provided to Australians, including in Israel and Palestine

Photo of Tim Watts MP
November 30, 2023

More recently, DFAT has had to mount an even bigger consular response for the thousands of Australians, permanent residents and their families caught up in the Israel- Hamas conflict. More than 450 staff across Canberra and 10 DFAT posts in Amman, Cairo, Nicosia, Beirut, Doha, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, London, Tel Aviv and our representative office in Ramallah have been involved in our coordinated consular crisis response to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Mr WATTS (GellibrandAssistant Minister for Foreign Affairs) (09:19): The Albanese government’s foreign policy begins with our identity. It begins with who we are. Half of Australians either are born overseas or have a parent born overseas. We have a direct connection with every corner of the world.

This connection increases our understanding of the world and our influence on it, but it also means that when a crisis happens anywhere in the world, odds are that Australians will be directly affected. For this reason, delivering the consular support needed to help Australians and their families stay safe during an international crisis will always be a top priority for the Albanese government. The Consular state of play 2022-23 is the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s annual report on how we are helping Australians who encounter difficulties overseas.

It’s been a busy year. In 2022-23, DFAT provided consular assistance and crisis support to over 9,200 Australians, permanent residents and their families around the world. We provided consular assistance to 17 per cent more people than the year before. Throughout 2022-23, DFAT’s 24/7 consular emergency centre responded to over 48,000 calls, one every 11 minutes. At any one time, DFAT is supporting around 1,375 active consular cases. These statistics were collated before the outbreak of the recent Israel-Hamas conflict, so 2023-24 is already shaping up to be even bigger.

There’s a story behind every one of these statistics. Many of these stories are the day-to-day difficulties that Australians encounter overseas every day of the week. In the last financial year, we issued a record 3.1 million Australian passports, breaking the back of the processing backlog that we inherited and restoring processing times to pre-pandemic levels. Australians are clearly travelling again with enthusiasm, but they’re also running into trouble more often. We saw a 28 per cent increase in the number of Australians in immigration detention, a 23 per cent increase in illnesses and hospitalisations, a 54 per cent increase in reported assaults, a 241 per cent increase in thefts and a 168 per cent increase in stolen passports.

Our consular officials will always do their best to assist, but the best way for Australians to ensure that their overseas trip doesn’t become a travel horror story is by planning ahead before leaving Australia. So Australians should make smartraveller.gov.au their first destination for every overseas trip for detailed travel advice on over 175 destinations to help them avoid trouble, as well as a handy guide for finding the right travel insurance for their trip.

These are the everyday stories of consular assistance included in the statistics of this report, but statistics like these also include the stories of Australians caught up in extraordinary circumstances and Australian consular officials doing extraordinary things to help keep them safe. You often see relieved and emotional Australians being interviewed at airports on the TV news on their return from a crisis area. What the public often doesn’t see, though, are the thousands of hours of work from Australian consular officials around the world that help make these happy outcomes a reality.

In crisis situations, natural disasters, terrorist attacks and armed conflicts, Australian consular staff often work long hours in round-the-clock shifts in complex, high-pressure situations. They are in direct and continuous contact with Australians in dangerous situations far from home, Australians who are scared and traumatised, separated families, kids without their parents. They organise passage for Australians, obtaining approvals from local authorities, arranging travel logistics through the most complex and rapidly changing environments imaginable. They meet tired and anxious Australians at bus stops, train stations, ports and airports. They organise places for them to sleep. They provide Australians with the basic essentials in circumstances when people have been forced to leave with the clothes on their back and whatever they can carry with them. They provide a caring, friendly face to Australians at some of the darkest moments of their lives.

It takes all the skills of a professional diplomat, including enormous personal resources of resilience, empathy and compassion. And it’s all the more impressive when you consider that our consular staff are often doing this work a long way from their own homes, often separated from their own families and their own personal support networks. I want to take this opportunity to thank all of the DFAT staff who do this vital but difficult consular work as well as all of the staff from across the Australian Public Service who support them in this effort. I want to acknowledge many in the galleries here today who have come to watch. It has been one of the privileges of my role to see the work that these Australian diplomats do on our behalf around the world. I am so proud of them.

Two recent DFAT crisis responses highlight this work and the priority that the Albanese government puts on providing consular assistance to Australians in difficulty overseas. When civil war hit Sudan in April this year, we helped over 400 Australians, permanent residents and their families to depart an active conflict zone. Every crisis is different and poses different challenges to our consular officials. A particular challenge of the Sudan crisis was the fact that we did not have a diplomatic post in the country or consular officials on the ground. Instead, we deployed DFAT crisis response teams to key locations to support our consular response.

DFAT CRTs are small, agile groups of DFAT personnel who are specially trained, equipped and ready for rapid deployment anywhere in the world within 12 hours. These are DFAT staff answering the call to go above and beyond for their fellow Australians. In the Sudan crisis, we deployed additional staff on the ground in Cyprus, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Djibouti and assisted Australians with the support of our strong consular partnerships with countries that did have a diplomatic presence on the ground. I thank those partner countries. More than 240 officers from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade worked in shifts around the clock to help Australians get to safety in that conflict.

The DFAT crisis centre puts all the people that we need to track developments in an international crisis and to work through the logistics of our response in one room. It creates a single entry point for all of the information we collect about the crisis and a single contact point for the analysis and advice we produce in the situation. That means bringing together the consular staff to help Australians get out, staff to monitor the humanitarian needs on the ground and to help identify where Australian aid packages could be most useful, international relations experts to provide advice on the political and economic context to make sure that our responses are tailored to the stakeholders we are engaging and crisis management teams to set up response rosters for DFAT staff in Australia and around the world to make sure we have a sustainable workforce as well as passport staff so we can verify documents or issue new documents to Australians when needed.

DFAT staff in the Sudan crisis centre were making calls, organising departure options, arranging travel and engaging diplomatically to push for ceasefires and safe passage for civilians. We facilitated seats on evacuation flights for Australians and their families on planes operated by friendly governments leaving from Wadi Sayyidna Airport and we facilitated seats on boats departing from Port Sudan for Jeddah. Finally, we operated two RAAF flights from Port Sudan to Cyprus, with members of the CRT accompanying Australians to safety. When Australians and their families reached Jeddah or Nicosia, they were greeted by DFAT consular staff, who offered moral support through the transit and help with their onwards travel.

More recently, DFAT has had to mount an even bigger consular response for the thousands of Australians, permanent residents and their families caught up in the Israel- Hamas conflict. More than 450 staff across Canberra and 10 DFAT posts in Amman, Cairo, Nicosia, Beirut, Doha, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, London, Tel Aviv and our representative office in Ramallah have been involved in our coordinated consular crisis response to the Israel-Hamas conflict. The crisis centre has been running 24 hours a day since 8 October. That is a lot of long shifts, late nights, coffees and takeaway meals. Given the time differences with our region, often the most important shifts are done overnight both here in Australia and by our dedicated consular and diplomatic staff overseas. For Australian staff, that means a lot of nights of disrupted sleep and of family schedules thrown completely out the window. These are Australians going above and beyond.

DFAT’s 24-hour emergency call unit has received more than 8,400 calls since 8 October. That is more than 1,000 calls a week. These are often intense phone calls from Australians caught in a crisis zone, scared, stressed and looking for help to find their way to safety, or from family or friends fraught with worry about their loved ones caught up in this conflict. There have been so many calls that we have engaged Services Australia staff to help field these calls, and I thank them. At the same time, Australian officials and ministers are pursuing a diplomatic full-court press to build the support necessary from key governments in the region to facilitate the departure of Australians from Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Following Hamas’ terrorist attack, over 2,000 Australians and their families registered with DFAT and left Israel. About 800 people were supported across eight Australian government flights out of Tel Aviv. In the West Bank, the Australian Representative Office in Ramallah has assisted 45 Australians to depart the West Bank by car into Jordan.

Our situation in Gaza has been even more challenging. Consular officials worked relentlessly to enable Australians and their families who wanted to leave to do so. This meant countless conversations with officials and countries in the region, collecting information, comparing notes, twisting arms. This is diplomatic work at its most practical, and where officials draw on all of their expertise, experience, networks and resilience. We were relieved when Australians were among the first group of foreign nationals permitted to leave Gaza for Egypt via the Rafah Crossing on 1 November. But, so far, only 131 Australian citizens, permanent residents and family members have been able to leave Gaza. We’re doing everything we can for the 67 Australians and their families we’re continuing to assist in Gaza. All people applying for visas, no matter where they’re from, are required to undergo security checks, as has been the case under all previous governments.

The Consular state of play 2022-23 provides a statistical report on the efforts of the Albanese government to help Australians in need around the world. But this report is about so much more than statistics. These statistics don’t tell you about the Australian ambassador who greeted Australians transiting through their country with home baked Anzac biscuits, or the consul-general who arranged kosher snacks for an evacuating family at 2 am in the morning in a foreign airport, or the consular officials who met an exhausted Aussie mum fleeing a conflict zone with two of her kids at a dusty Egyptian bus stop with nappies and a friendly face. There are countless stories behind the statistics in this report, and, collectively, they are Australian stories—the stories of a nation of people who are intensely connected with every corner of the world in good times and bad, and the stories of Australian diplomats standing by their compatriots when they need help far from home.

A recent letter of thanks from an Australian who received consular support to leave the Middle East with her family during the current conflict puts it best. I will leave the House with her words:

I hope I can express well enough to you the feeling of gratitude we have to Australia.

Not just for the incredible mission of sending planes and organising repatriation flights, though this in itself was a huge operation.

What moved me most is the way it was done.

The kindness, love and empathy that was expressed by so many of the wonderful people we met from Tel Aviv, to Dubai and finally to Sydney.

This reminded me what the true Australian spirit is, and how proudly Australian I am.

I thank the House.

Link to Parliamentary Hasard