Dr Daniel Woker is the former Swiss Ambassador to Australia and now a Senior Lecturer at the University of St Gallen.
Gar Pardy, formerly with the Canadian MFA, has just added Canadian solutions to the exchange of best national practices on the growing consular affairs problem. The Lowy Institute's Alex Oliver calls it the Consular Conundrum, an apt name for the tension between the declining funds available for consular help to get citizens abroad out of trouble and the rising number of citizens getting into such trouble.
Let me add a Swiss perspective. The Swiss public, in absolute numbers quite a bit fewer (8 million) than either Australians or Canadians, make up for it by being among the world champions of long distance travel per capita. Over the last couple of years a few quite incredible cases of traveling foolishness by Swiss citizens stand out:
- A couple visiting a Tuareg festival in northern Mali were kidnapped, with the lady released first and then raising hell back home to get her husband released. Cost to the taxpayer: an estimated SFR 5.5 million (about the same in A$).
- A pair of campers, on bicycles, pitched a tent overnight in a forest in central India. The girl was raped and the boyfriend beaten.
- A young couple, both members of the Zurich Police Force (!), set out in a camper bus for Afghanistan through the tribal areas of Pakistan, despite express warnings. They were kidnapped and held for ransom for eight months. As all concerned with such cases know, governments do not pay ransom, yet money does flow through third parties quite often.
The last of these cases finally prompted action from the Swiss parliament. The proposed new Consular Law aims to regulate the process of having victims of mishaps abroad pay at least part of the cost of their rescue. It also deals with the more frequent case of nationals applying to their embassy because they are destitute abroad and need to be repatriated.
The degree of participation by the victim in the reparation cost is determined by their responsibility for causing the mishap in the first place, though the Consular Law acknowledges that in almost all cases, the victims cannot reimburse the state for 100% of expenses because such cost is often impossible to compute exactly and is normally too high for most victims.
What does this mean in practice? Even though the new law is not on the books yet, the aforementioned case of the young Zurich Police Force couple was used as an application. The authorities first determined the level of financial compensation in this particular case, taking into account the degree of carelessness (high) and a realistic look at the actual and future financial situation of the couple (rather low). They were given the choice of either paying SFR 10,000 each or else doing voluntary work in the form of public seminars about avoiding unnecessary risks when traveling.
Many saw this as getting off very lightly. But in the words of a former colleague from the Swiss MFA who accompanied the couple in their swing through Swiss civic forums, it did force them to face their painful memories of falling prey to local hijackers and then being sold to a Taliban group which terrorised them repeatedly with mock executions during the complicated negotiations leading to their release.
Hopes by more affluent but reckless travelers that private insurance coverage will take care of whatever is imposed on them by the new law will be disappointed. The whole question of compensation only comes up in cases where victims carry an elevated degree of responsibility, meaning that insurers in all likelihood will refuse to pay in the first place.
Of course victims who get into their predicament abroad entirely without fault of their own will be rescued by the state without any recourse to them, just as the police doesn't charge victims of crime for any expense incurred.
Finally, the new law will also enshrine an electronic device which, similar to the Australian app Alex refers to in her paper, is already functioning. Any Swiss citizen traveling abroad can record their travel and personal data with Itineris, a hotline of the Swiss MFA.
In some cases (eg. the Japan tsunami) Itineris has already functioned, with results. However, Fukushima is an example of how desirable it is for a country to impose consular registration duties on its citizens when they depart for a longer period. Japan is normally not a high risk country for travelers, so there was relatively little data on Itineris. The large majority of potential Swiss victims of the tsunami were registered longer-term Japan residents, which helped with their tracking in the aftermath of the tsunami.
Yet there are no penalties meted out to those who don't register. In Australia, for example, the number of Swiss citizens registered is some 22,000, even though the real figure of longer term Swiss residents in Australia is probably well above 30,000.
Photo by Flickr user MJ&LM Ryan.