As we take more trips abroad, and more of us move overseas, the number of people falling on hard times while they are away is on the rise. This week the Department of Foreign Affairs said it helped almost 1,650 Irish citizens in 2014, up 10 per cent on the previous year and 26 per cent since 2010.
Most cases are to do with medical emergencies and hospitalisations, but the total also includes 244 arrests and 217 deaths, kidnappings and child abductions.
Consular assistance is provided each year to Irish citizens in almost every country, but most cases arise in the locations home to significant Irish populations: Australia, Britain, the US, Canada and New Zealand.
Popular holiday destinations, such as France, Thailand, Portugal, Italy and Greece, are also high on the list, but by far the highest number of cases occur in Spain. The Irish Embassy in Madrid dealt with 286 emergencies concerning 299 Irish citizens last year, a fifth of the overall number.
Irish people made an estimated six million trips abroad last year, and the department expects the figure to rise in the coming years.
Monitoring the situation in conflict zones and areas of natural disaster is a vital part of the department’s role. During a crisis, emergency helplines provide advice to Irish citizens affected and co-ordinate evacuation if necessary.
The outbreak of Ebola in west Africa has been the biggest recent cause for concern. Ongoing conflicts in the Middle East – particularly in Syria – are monitored closely, and the Embassies in Cairo and Tel Aviv maintain close contact with registered Irish citizens in the region.
Migration trends have had an impact on the most popular destinations for Irish emigrants. A total of 78,400 people moved from Ireland to Australia between April 2008 and 2014, which has created much more work for the Embassy in Canberra and its consulate in Sydney.
Ambassador Noel White estimates that the caseload doubled between 2010 and 2012 alone; he and his staff helped 161 people last year. A new honorary consul in Perth was recently appointed to meet growing demand in Western Australia.
“Consular assistance covers everything from ‘minor irritations’ to the truly tragic: accident and illness, arrest, deportations, detentions, missing persons, medical emergencies and, unfortunately, deaths,” says White, who is in Ireland for a conference of Irish Ambassadors in Dublin next week.
“Our role involves liaising with coroners, police and other authorities, and families in Ireland. The distress for families is compounded not only by the physical distance but also by that sense of remoteness brought about by the time difference. They know there’s an Irish voice at the end of the phone that can guide them through.”
The Embassy works closely with welfare organisations in Australian cities, which help Irish people in need. These organisations receive funding from the Government through the emigrant support programme.
Embassies and consulates provide advice on entitlements and how to access local services. For crime victims, they liaise between police, the individual and their family, especially in serious cases.
In the case of arrest, “nonjudgmental” information is provided on detention arrangements and local English-speaking lawyers, and the person is visited in prison by a consular representative.
While most emigrants thrive in Australia, and never need assistance, a lack of preparation is leading to problems for some recent arrivals, White warns. “It is relatively easy to get a visa, but we are finding there are still people coming out, especially young people, who are . . . not aware of the cost of sustaining themselves here, or have an overly optimistic view of the job market.
“People come without insurance and have an accident, they break limbs or need to be medevacked, which costs a lot of money. Young people feel indestructible; they don’t think these things can happen to them. Death happens too, unfortunately, and repatriation is costly.”
But there are limits to what the department can do. It cannot pay the cost of repatriating a body or for medical evacuation. It also won’t pay the cost of flying relatives abroad, pay medical or legal bills, request release from custody or deal with insurance companies. It can provide a small advance of funds if someone loses money, but, generally, the only financial assistance is in the form of help with the transfer of money to the individual from a friend or relative in Ireland, for a fee.
“The majority of requests we receive are reasonable. Often people ring up saying, ‘You won’t believe what has happened to me,’ but there is not a lot that would surprise us,” says White.
“I would prefer if we were in a situation where people weren’t obliged because of the economic situation to emigrate . . . But while they are coming, we will continue to look after them as best we can.”