Ukraine war prompts unprecedented response from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

The war in Ukraine prompted an unprecedented consular response from the Australian government, capping an immense workload for diplomatic officials dominated by health and geopolitical crises.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (DFAT) Consular State of Play report charts its work over the 2021-22 financial year.

Crisis responses have soared to the highest level in more than four years, following succussive international emergencies.

Among the most significant was the war in Ukraine, which saw almost 700 support cases opened.

DFAT’s Crisis Centre was active for 13 weeks, including approximately five weeks of 24/7 operations, the longest the centre had been continuously activated for a single crisis.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs Tim Watts said the response was “incredibly complex”.

“DFAT forward deployed consular services to Poland and that team provided a very wide range of services, they provided services helping Australians to exit that unsafe situation, they provided ongoing, up-to-date advice about the situation,” he said.

The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan prompted one of the largest humanitarian air evacuations ever undertaken by the Australian government.

DFAT evacuated around 4,100 people on 32 flights from Kabul between in late August 2021.

“[It] involved hundreds of government officials working together on the ground in Afghanistan, Canberra, UAE and other places,” DFAT secretary Jan Adams said.

COVID impact waning

The report also charts the diminishing COVID-19 related caseload for consular officials.

Described by Ms Adams as “our biggest crisis support in history”, the department carried out more than 26,000 COVID-19 repatriations in the first months of the pandemic.

That’s since halved, as border controls were relaxed.

As anticipation built for the return of international travel, so did lines outside passport offices. Almost 1.5 million new documents were issued, a 147 per cent increase on the previous year. Seven thousand emergency passports were issued, a five-fold increase on the previous year.

DFAT said it expected demand for passports to continue “for the foreseeable future”.

DFAT workload normalising

While international travel is well and truly back, the volume hasn’t yet returned to pre-COVID levels.

Almost 2.4 million Australians travelled in the past year, compared with 11 million in 2018/19 and 8 million in 2019/20.

The most popular destination include New Zealand, the United States, India, the United Kingdom, Fiji, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Pakistan.

Thailand recorded the largest volume of consular cases, with 695.

In total, DFAT fielded almost 67,000 consular calls.

‘Bubble tea’ tale of caution

The report also contains tales of travellers caught without sufficient insurance.

Insurance Council of Australia chief executive Andrew Hall said “two classes of travellers” had emerged, where older people spent hours going over policy details, while the younger generation were more laissez faire.

Twelve per cent of under 30s actively reject the idea of travel insurance, and 66 per cent believe Australian consulates can sort out medical emergencies overseas.

Mr Hall said he knew of a man holidaying in the United States who choked on a bubble tea, resulting in a $500,000 hospital bill.

“A GoFundMe page is not a plan for travel,” he said.

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