When things go wrong abroad, who do you call?

Department of Foreign Affairs’ consular services helped 2,500 travelling abroad in 2017

This week the consular services of the Department of Foreign Affairs held a consultative forum with stakeholders.

Led by head of the consular services Pat Bourne, the session was to explore ways that the services can be more effective for citizens.

The audience comprised of representatives from internal and external statutory and non-statutory stakeholders, including the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas, CrossCare, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Department of Justice and Equality, Tusla, An Garda Síochána and the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust.

On the panel, were Bourne, Dermot Moriarty - manager of marketing and communications at SafeFood and Joan Scales, travel writer with The Irish Times. The panel discussion was moderated by Ralph Victory, director of communications at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The consular services of the department provide support and backing to Irish embassies, which are usually the first to have to act when major disasters occur abroad. “We try to close the loop early and get information flowing as fast as possible,” says Bourne.

Consular services are also available in international situations where Irish people are in danger. In Libya during the Arab Spring of 2011, for example, they worked with the Irish Defence Forces to evacuate citizens by boat to Malta. Consular services have their own equipment, safety clothing and satellite phones and can write a passport on a heaving ship if necessary to get someone out of danger.

Last year the department provided assistance in over 2,500 complex consular cases involving Irish citizens in distress abroad. This involved the network of embassies and consulates around the world assisting in situations involving missing persons, arrests, imprisonments, illness and injury.

Sadly, more than 300 families needed help following the deaths of loved ones abroad, the highest number of death cases the department has ever dealt with in a single year.

In addition to the large and growing number of individual personal emergencies, the department also provided support during 2017 to Irish people caught up in a number of major incidents overseas. These included the terrorist attacks in Manchester, Barcelona, London and St Petersburg, as well as natural disasters such as the earthquake in Mexico city and Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean.

The main issue that came out of the consultation was the need for travellers to be more prepared for where they are going. The lack of travel insurance is a major concern with up to 70 per cent of people travelling without.

The new Travelwise app produced by the department should also be a requirement for travellers. It lists the status of every county in the world and also where help can be obtained from consulates overseas.

Identifying key risk groups is also important. These groups were identified as older travellers who may have health issues and younger travellers who may be less vigilant abroad and take part in risky activities. The travel industry was also encouraged to educate people on what to expect and to use the Travelwise app for information.