Monday, April 12, 2021

After coronavirus, here’s what the Government will (and won’t) do to help travellers

After coronavirus, here's what the Government will (and won't) do to help travellers

Parts of the world are starting to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, giving rise to fresh dreams of international travel.

New Zealand is pushing hard for a trans-Tasman bubble while Greece has issued the invitation for Australians to come visit. Some people are even planning their next cruise.

But the coronavirus has changed things and Australians are warned there is no cavalry guaranteed to ride in and save them if they get caught out in the future.

There are limits to what the Government can — and is willing — to do to help.

Travel is sure to look different in the future. So is the help on offer to those in trouble.(AP: Michael Dwyer)

And just months before the pandemic was declared, a program that let travellers register their details with the Government in case of emergency was dropped.

Here’s what systems are now in place, what happened during the coronavirus, and what the Government is legally obliged to do to help.

First, what’s this about the registration scheme?

This was the long-running system that let you log your itinerary with the Government’s Smartraveller program.

The idea was that if a crisis arose where you were travelling — natural disaster, political instability etc — the Government would know you were there, get in touch and possibly organise help.

It was a handy way for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to keep track of where Australians were, and for years passports included a note encouraging people to register.

A hand holds two Australian passports in Central Park, New York.
Future passports won’t include reference to the Smartraveller registration.(ABC News: Melanie Vujkovic)

That program ended on November 21 last year.

DFAT says “very few” Australians registered their details and the information given was often incomplete or inaccurate, which delayed help.

On average, between 6 to 8 per cent of Australians overseas at any one time were registered.

In the last year of the system’s operation, about 380,000 Australians registered, compared to the roughly 11 million overseas trips taken in that time.

What is replacing this then?

The onus is more back on the traveller.

Now, Smartraveller will activate a “crisis page” online if there is a situation overseas that could affect Australians. If you need help you can contact the service.

Anyone can contact it on your behalf, and it can also be done over the phone:

  • +61 2 6261 3305 (from overseas)
  • 1300 555 135 (within Australia)

DFAT also launched a new subscription service that will send an email and SMS with information for certain areas in the event of a crisis.

DFAT says this isn’t a cost-cutting measure or a reduction in service, and instead it’s modelled on a similar move in the UK five years ago that has proven effective.

“In our experience of responding to crises for over 16 years, most people who need our help either contact us themselves or their family does,” DFAT says.

“The new system reflects this reality and allows us to focus on Australians most in need.”

Two people hugging each other in masks in an airport
Want to get home safely? It could be left to you to sort out.(Reuters: Carlos Osorio)

So what happened when coronavirus hit?

More than 300,000 Australians abroad quickly flew home — the majority doing so through regular commercial flights.

DFAT says it helped more than 23,000 Australians come back on more than 270 flights, 57 of which were directly facilitated by the Government.

It has also provided advice and assistance to more than 75,000 callers since January 21.

Yet there were also limitations.

In India, a group of expats and aviation experts felt compelled to arrange their own private charter flights after weeks passed without any official repatriation flights.

Hundreds of Australians were also stuck in Peru for weeks when the country closed its borders, and said they felt abandoned by the Government.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne later said flights had been organised after ongoing work between the two countries.


Part of the difficulty appears to stem from the sheer number of Australians who now travel compared to the size of Australia’s diplomatic network.

Australians took nearly 12 million trips last year and it is estimated more than 1 million were overseas at any time.

Yet our diplomatic network is comparatively small — ranked 27th in the world, according to the Lowy Institute.

Australia has 81 embassies or high commissions, for example, compared to Switzerland, which has 103 for roughly a third the population.

“Many of our missions are tiny, with very few staff. Lima, the embassy … in Peru, is one of them,” writes Lowy Institute director of research Alex Oliver.

So what will the government do to help in a crisis?

Still quite a bit.

In the 2018-19 year, DFAT assisted 13,715 Australians in difficulty overseas, according to its annual report.

This included 10 cases of Australians being evacuated for medical reasons and 1,572 cases of someone being arrested overseas.

More generally, DFAT says it strives to “empower Australians to help themselves overseas” and asks that they “take personal responsibility for [their] travel choices”.

Here are some of the things it may be able to do:

  • Provide details of local doctors and hospitals
  • Provide advice and support if you’re the victim of a serious assault or other crime, or you’re arrested
  • Visit or contact you to check on your welfare if you’re arrested or detained
  • Make special arrangements in cases of international terrorism, civil disturbances and natural disasters
A man disinfects a sunbed during the official reopening of beaches to the public in Greece.
Greece has invited Australian travellers to visit.(Reuters: Costas Baltas)

Here are some of the things it cannot do:

  • Guarantee your safety in another country or make your travel arrangements
  • Give you legal advice, interpret or translate documents
  • Intervene in another country’s court proceedings or legal matters
  • Get you out of prison or prevent you from being deported
  • Intervene in immigration, customs or quarantine matters in other countries

But isn’t the Government legally obliged to help Australians?

Not really.

There’s no overarching legal obligation for the Australian Government to come to the rescue of citizens abroad, says Monash University associate professor Patrick Emerton.

“No individual has a private right to help that they can enforce against the Government,” he said.

“The Government has a sort of public duty to act properly, but it gets to determine what that looks like or how that’s carried out.

“If the Government decides, for example, that it doesn’t want to involve itself because there will be adverse diplomatic consequences or trade consequences, well that’s the Government’s prerogative.

And that includes if a country chooses to close its borders due to coronavirus and not let anyone leave.

Realistically, people can expect the Government to make representations on their behalf, but it will come down to the relationship with the other country, Mr Emerton said.

“When you’re overseas, you’re governed by that country’s laws. I think that’s the bottom line,” he said.

“Even though the world is very mobile, those legal boundaries are still very real things.

“In that sense it’s not a borderless world.”

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