What is Consular Help?
A considerable part of my years as a Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) British diplomat was spent in charge of what we called “consular” work. Essentially that meant looking after British Citizens who had got into trouble while overseas. Getting into trouble meant anything from losing their passport to being victims of crime, to being arrested, to getting seriously ill or – and sadly this happened more frequently than you might think – dying. Every year some 3,600 British Citizens die abroad.
Consular work is very rewarding. It’s about helping people who are in real need and are vulnerable. In Venezuela, we had regular customers, male as well as female, whose shoulder-bag had been stolen by a guy on a motor-bike, who had cut the bag’s strap with a knife. Inside the bag were often purses or wallets containing travel documents, tickets and other valuables. In Germany we worked with German and British police to ensure speedy resolution of incidents involving British football fans, who had run afoul of the law when supporting their favourite teams in European Champions’ League fixtures against Bundesliga opposition. And we also gave advice to the British mother of a child allegedly abducted by her German husband.
Governmental consular staff are well-trained and professional. And generally, they do a fantastic job. But they are not always able to help. Sometimes they are not allowed to become involved. For example, they cannot:
- issue new or replacement passports, or accept applications for these, because passports are issued by Her Majesty’s Passport Office in the UK
- give out legal advice or translate foreign documents, because such support is best provided by independent professionals.
- investigate crimes or interfere in local criminal or civil proceedings, because they must respect other countries’ systems, just as we expect others to respect the UK’s laws and legal systems.
- pay any bills or give out money from public funds because they are not funded to do this and it is the obligation of individuals to take responsibility for themselves.
- get involved (including offering advice) in private disputes over property, employment, commercial or other matters, because they are in no position to judge the facts and have no jurisdiction overseas to resolve such matters
And sometimes they simply do not have the capacity to help, either because we do not have an Embassy or Consulate in the country concerned. Or the incident occurs out of office hours and is not a genuine emergency. Or the consular staff contacted consider the support requested an inappropriate use of government resources. They might for example be in a position to provide advice about how to medivac the victim of a serious injury or illness. They may be able to issue an emergency travel document, if the original has gone missing, or is unavailable. They should have names of local doctors or lawyers, who can notarise documents required before the victim can leave the country. But they are unlikely to have the resources to help move luggage from the hotel of the person who has been medivaced. Nor would they be able to make arrangements for the family of that person to fly out to support the victim, or to help apply for the visas which would allow the victim to pass through a third country. Indeed, I suspect the average taxpayer, who ultimately pays for the consular service, would not be happy to have our Embassies and Consulates resourced to such an extent that they were able to provide these services.
The formal position, according to the FCO Leaflet “Support for British national Abroad”, is that: “Generally, there is no legal right to consular assistance. All assistance provided is at our discretion.”
While I was in the FCO, I often found this situation frustrating; not least because of the damage I could see arising for the Office’s reputation. Friends would often simply be baffled as to why we couldn’t – or wouldn’t – do this or that. And, over time, I came to realise that our capacity to help was shrinking. In the interests of efficiency and of maintaining consistency across jurisdictions, it was increasingly difficult for my staff to “go the extra mile”. And the number of staff available to do the job was being reduced all the time. In 2004 the number of FCO diplomatic staff engaged in consular work was over 2000. But 2018, it was less than 25. There has been a major reorganisation to make Consular Sections in Embassies be staffed by locally recruited personnel: often great people, but without the same background and experience. The statistics published annually by the FCO tell a similar story. In 2018, some 400,000 persons contacted the FCO with consular enquiries/problems. Only 17,000 – or 4% – received assistance.
I doubt if the resources situation will improve for consular work. Yet the numbers of people travelling and living abroad continues to grow: 68 million journeys in the 12 months to July 2017, compared with 56 million in 2010. And the world is becoming a more dangerous and less predictable place. Not just cities like Bangkok, Caracas and Mumbai, but even Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Boston and Paris (as Kim Kardashian recently discovered!).
Our Concierge company offers consular-type services in the private sector. It was founded by a former Diplomat with many years of experience in doing consular work and in training others how to do it. They employ other former diplomats, both in London and around the world, as they build up a network of Global Consular Assistance Providers who can provide on the ground support. Their services are available 24/7/365. Unlike the FCO and other Governments, they are not bound by tight government rules as to what they can and cannot do. So they can for example arrange a local translator, help with application for a new passport and assist with arrangements for a family member to fly out to support a victim. And, unlike a holiday insurance company, they can actually give travellers hands-on support when they need it, rather than just sending a cheque to reimburse expenses on return.
Our concierge company are starting to make something of a name for themselves in the travel industry. And you can see why. They have developed a unique product and are well-placed to provide the sort of service government no longer can, indeed in many cases never could!