The following piece was published 9 December 2013, SBS World News Australia Radio.
By Ildi Amon
A huge number of Australians travel overseas each year and inevitably some run into trouble and seek consular assistance.
But the government says the number of requests -- and their complexity -- is putting huge pressure on consular resources.
The government is calling for public submissions on the extent of support diplomatic missions should provide to travellers and dual citizens.
The new strategy is expected to be announced early next year and the public has until January 31 to contribute.
Ildi Amon reports.
Around eight million Australians travelled overseas last financial year, and almost 12,000 of those sought consular assistance.
Recent high-profile cases include two men arrested in Dubai over a commercial property dispute and an activist charged in Russia over his role in a Greenpeace protest.
There are also a number of Australians in prison or facing the death penalty in Indonesia and elsewhere over drugs offences.
But the head of the Department's Consular Division, Justin Brown, says there are limited resources and some people - especially young travellers - have unrealistic expectations about what services the government can provide.
"There have been cases in the past where individuals have been ill or have had an accident in a foreign country. Many have expected consular officers to visit them on a regular basis to look after their financial affairs while they've been hospitalised, to keep their next of kin back in country informed at a very high level detail as to what's going on, and essentially look after their affairs while they're in hospital or incapacitated. While we're happy to assist in most cases the level of the intensity of our interaction is something which varies from case to case. And we have noticed a lot of younger travellers do expect quite a high degree of assistance and my personal view is that this high degree of assistance is not sustainable."
Alex Oliver from the Lowy Institute for International Policy has completed a research project on consular services.
She says high-profile cases can skew the public's perception about what the government can offer.
"The case of the two Australians caught in Dubai in that corporate scandal there required massive resources from the Department and lobbying right up to the Minister and Prime Minister level. And these are the cases that I'm particularly concerned about because they really stretch the resources and they raise the expectations of Australians about the sort of attention that government is going to give to them when they get into trouble overseas."
But Alex Oliver says consular staff can't get involved in all legal cases.
"There was a case of an Australian mother who got into trouble with officials overseas for having stolen a barmat from a Bangkok bar. And she asked for the Australian government to intervene to pull her out of jail and get her home as quickly as possible."
But Justin Brown from the Department of Foreign Affairs concedes some cases do attract a considerable level of service.
"We have a certain range of services which are made available to all clients in a non-discriminatory way. We don't offer a higher level of service if you like to particular clients because of who they are or who might be advocating on their behalf. The standard of service is the same. But having said that there's obviously occasional high-profile cases if you like that for a variety of reasons they do attract a lot of media attention and they do attract a lot of consular resourcing."
The Department says the type of consular services extended to dual nationals is also being considered.
Justin Brown says Australia is one of the few countries that provides consular assistance to dual nationals without exception.
"We have had cases in the past of dual nationals who haven't lived in Australia for quite some time, are living in the country of their other nationality and come to the Australian embassy or consulate seeking consular support. And the question we're asking in the issues paper is is that a good use of Australian consular resources, at a time when we're having much more complex cases, where we do have pressure to bring consular resources to bear to help vulnerable people in difficult locations."
The Lowy Institute's Alex Oliver says thousands of dual Lebanese-Australian citizens were repatriated to Australia after unrest in Lebanon in 2006.
She says the new strategy should confirm whether this type of assistance would be provided in future.
"Should dual citizens -- particularly those who are primarily a resident in that other country, or have been resident in that other country of citizenship for a long time -- should they be offered the same level of service? And that is another issue which the government has sought submissions on for this consular strategy for the next few years, is what do Australians think about that? And I think there was some backlash after the Lebanon evacuations about how many dual citizens were rescued in that situation at enormous cost to the Australian government."
The strategy is also expected to look at better promotion of travel advisories and encouraging greater use of travel insurance.