Thu, Dec 04, 2014 - Page 6 News List

Australia curbs absurd embassy aid

AP, CANBERRA

Canberra is taking steps to curb Australian travelers’ soaring expectations of what help they can get from their embassies, such as a loan to pay a prostitute in Thailand, or assistance to evict a polecat from above a ceiling in the US.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop yesterday announced new measures to underscore consular services as a last resort and to promote “a stronger culture of self-reliance and personal responsibility in the traveling public.”

These measures include a new policy of providing minimal consular services to Australians who willfully, repeatedly or negligently get themselves into trouble. People who visit embassies and consulates will be given the new guidelines. Charging Australians for the consular help they receive is also something the government is considering, she said.

“Our consular staff are not there to pay for the repairs to your jet ski; they’re not there to pay your hotel bill; they’re not there to lend you a laptop or to provide you with office space in the embassy for you to do your work,” Bishop said, listing requests that embassies have refused.

At the embassy in Bangkok — Australia’s busiest overall — one traveler walked in with a prostitute and was refused a loan to pay for services already rendered, said Anita Downey, a senior counselor official at the Australasian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Such requests are common at that embassy, she said, listing Los Angeles, Bali, Manila and Dubai as other locations where consular staff frequently get outlandish requests.

Australian diplomats have fielded requests for an armored car, help removing a polecat above the ceiling of a house and intervention to prevent payment of a speeding fine, senior Australian Foreign Ministry official Justin Brown said.

Other examples: Australians who were evacuated from civil unrest in Egypt in a government-chartered Qantas airliner in 2011 expected frequent flier miles for the trip, while others evacuated from the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia requested first-class seats, department records show.

Brown said the US, Canada and New Zealand embassies were experiencing similar escalating expectations from citizens.

“At most of our posts there are people we would describe colloquially as serial pests who are constantly bouncing back into the embassy because they’ve run out of money or they’ve got some sort of other personal problem, and they often come to the embassy and the consular teams expecting us to solve their problems for them,” he said.

Downey said that 20 percent of emergency loans made to Australians overseas are never repaid.

Australians are avid travelers. Despite a population of only 24 million, they made 9.2 million overseas trips last year, during which the department assisted 15,000 of them.

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