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Leading the government’s response to international crises including humanitarian emergencies

Overview and analysis

Australia is committed to responding to international crises that affect our interests, whether consular, humanitarian or political.

Australian residents took 10,759,300 trips overseas in 2017–18. While the vast majority of these were safe and without incident, occasionally Australians found themselves in challenging situations resulting from terrorist attacks, civil unrest or instability. In these circumstances, we stand ready to provide consular assistance.

The government’s crisis centre was activated twice this year in response to natural disasters in Vanuatu and Tonga. We led the government’s response to terror-related incidents in Barcelona and Las Vegas, Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean and a major earthquake in the Papua New Guinea highlands. We also provided extensive information on the significant travel disruption from the Mount Agung volcano in Bali.

The department helped resolve two short but potentially serious criminal kidnapping cases, prevented one potential terrorist-related case and continued to manage two long and complicated cases. To further enhance our leadership role in whole-of-government responses to kidnapping, we also established an ongoing kidnap response and special references section.

Humanitarian crises undermine growth, reverse hard-won development gains, increase poverty and can result in long-term instability. Such crises can have profoundly negative consequences for regional trade and health security. They have a particular impact in our region. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says the Asia–Pacific is the world's most disaster-prone region. In 2017, 66 million people were affected by natural disasters in the region.

Globally, humanitarian needs continue to grow. By the end of 2017 a record 141 million people were assessed as needing humanitarian assistance—an increase of 13 million over the course of the year. The White Paper commits Australia to respond to this global challenge, including through a 20 per cent increase in global humanitarian funding, to more than $500 million a year from 2019–20.

The department led Australia’s whole of government response to humanitarian emergencies in 2017–18. We rapidly deployed:

  • emergency relief supplies and logistics support
  • personnel including government officials, civilian experts and specialised technical teams
  • funding via key Australian and international humanitarian partners.

We coordinate closely with our whole-of-government partners, including Emergency Management Australia and the Department of Defence, to ensure a comprehensive Australian Government approach to crises.

In 2017–18 Australia provided an estimated $399.7 million in life-saving humanitarian assistance. In our region, this helped communities hit by natural disasters, including:

  • cyclones in Tonga, Samoa and Fiji
  • volcanic eruptions in Vanuatu, the Philippines and Indonesia
  • earthquakes in Papua New Guinea.

For example, we helped communities affected by volcanic activity on Ambae Island, Vanuatu, to evacuate. This included a focus on the needs of women, children and people with disability. We provided emergency supplies including shelter tool kits, hygiene kits and tents. We also provided essential reproductive health care, including birthing kits and emergency obstetric and newborn care.

Australia is investing more heavily in disaster preparedness and resilience. In the Pacific, we are working to build the capacity of national governments, regional organisations, and civil society to manage crises themselves. In 2017–18 we established a new Australian Humanitarian Partnership (AHP) with six Australian non-government organisations, as well as local partners across the Pacific. The AHP includes a new $50 million program––Disaster Ready––which is building the disaster response and preparedness capacity of countries and local communities in the Pacific and Timor-Leste.

The Australia Assists program was launched in 2017 to provide highly skilled civilian humanitarian experts to support the world’s most vulnerable people before, during and after disaster or conflict. In 2017–18 the initiative enabled rapid mobilisation and deployment of more than 100 Australian specialists to deliver our humanitarian responsibilities.

In late 2017 Australia took over as chair of the France, Australia and New Zealand (FRANZ) humanitarian partnership. This initiative has helped support and coordinate humanitarian assistance from and between these partners and Pacific governments for 25 years. As chair, Australia is helping FRANZ partners to support nationally led response efforts and localised humanitarian assistance. For example, through a cash for work program we supported the Tongan community to lead the debris clearance response in the aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Gita.

We also helped people caught in the ongoing crises and conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Myanmar, South Sudan, Somalia and other parts of Africa. Australia announced a three-year $60 million humanitarian assistance package for Afghanistan and Pakistan to meet critical food security, protection and health needs in these countries.

With a record 68.5 million people forcibly displaced across the globe in 2017–18, more than $200 million of Australia’s humanitarian assistance went to support refugees and internally displaced people. This primarily supported refugees and internally displaced people stemming from conflict in Myanmar, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia. Australia works to support displaced people as close to their homes as possible, so they can return when conditions allow. In Jordan for example, our funding to UNICEF and the Jordanian Ministry of Education is providing access to education services for Syrian children and the most marginalized children in Jordanian host communities. This is essential because permanent resettlement is available to only a fraction of the world’s displaced.

Young refugees welcome Australia’s Ambassador to Iran, Ian Biggs, Dr Christine Biggs and Second Secretary, William Lodder, at the Society for the Protection of Working and Street Children, Karaj, Tehran [DFAT/Helen Mojarrad]

Since September Australia has provided $70 million to support the humanitarian response to the Rohingya crisis, primarily in Bangladesh. The United Nations estimates that more than 900,000 Rohingya are now living in Cox's Bazar, including more than 700,000 who have fled Myanmar since August 2017. Australia’s funding has provided services to more than 83,000 women and girls recovering from sexual and gender-based violence, and child-friendly spaces for more than 3,500 vulnerable children. In the lead-up to the monsoon season, our aid helped reinforce shelters, pre-position food and health supplies, and relocate up to 200,000 people at highest risk of landslides. It is also helping provide food assistance to more than 850,000 people and nutritious supplements to more than 250,000 children every school day.

Australia continues to provide core support to high performing United Nations agencies including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, World Food Programme, United Nations Children’s Fund and Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This support allows humanitarian agencies to help the most vulnerable. We also continue to work closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross to help those affected by armed conflict and to promote international humanitarian law.

A key focus is on protecting women and girls, and people with disability. These people are particularly vulnerable during conflicts and natural disasters. We have commenced a new partnership with Humanity and Inclusion (formerly Handicap International) to better support refugees and internally displaced people with disability in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. We are also expanding our partnerships with the United Nations Population Fund and the International Planned Parenthood Federation to provide essential, lifesaving sexual and reproductive health support to women and girls in emergencies.


Performance criteria



Timely and effective leadership and coordination of the government’s response to international crises.

Case study: Tropical Cyclone Gita


PBS 2017-18, Program 2.1, p.43

Corporate Plan 2017-18, p.23

Our humanitarian leadership within the Indo-Pacific region and international humanitarian system.

Case study: The Rohingya Crisis


Corporate Plan 2017-18, p. 23

The effectiveness of disaster risk reduction and recovery programs.

Case study: Australia’s support for the construction of resilient infrastructure in the Pacific


Our crisis management mechanisms in delivering a coordinated whole-of-government response to international crises, after each major crisis.



Our life-saving assistance to vulnerable people in crises situations.



Timely and effective leadership and coordination of the government’s response to international crises

Case study: Tropical Cyclone Gita

Tropical Cyclone Gita hit Tonga as a Category 4 storm on the night of 12 February, causing severe damage to the main island of Tongatapu, destroying 800 homes and cutting power to 80 per cent of the population. Earlier that day, the department hosted an inter-departmental emergency taskforce with key government agencies to prepare the government’s approach to three simultaneous challenges:

  • providing an effective consular response
  • ensuring business continuity for the Australian High Commission
  • providing urgent humanitarian assistance.

Early advice was sent to Australians in, or heading to, Tonga through Smartraveller.

The High Commission was flooded and needed emergency repairs. From alternative premises, staff confirmed the welfare of Australians and started planning the humanitarian response to Tongan government requests.

Within 24 hours of the cyclone, an Australian Defence Force C17 had delivered technical and specialist humanitarian staff to support the high commission, as well as the first of seven deliveries of humanitarian supplies.

The high commission was operational within one week. We coordinated humanitarian supplies to over 10,000 people. Joint Australian and New Zealand technical teams assessed damage to government buildings and health facilities. Twenty electrical line workers were deployed as part of an innovative new partnership with Australian electricity utilities, halving the time in which the majority of the population was without power. Overall Australia provided $14 million in humanitarian assistance.

We are now implementing improvements identified following a review of our response, including developing protocols on resource allocation, tracking response and recovery phases, and procedures for early assessment of consular, humanitarian and business continuity impacts.

Crisis Response Team officer, Dave Kelly, surveys the damage following Cyclone Gita, which devastated Tonga in February [DFAT/James Deane]

Our humanitarian leadership within the Indo-Pacific region and international humanitarian system

Case study: The Rohingya Crisis

Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is a government priority in crisis responses. When the Rohingya community began to flee instability in Myanmar in August 2017, around 60 per cent of those displaced were women and girls.

Australia was quick to act, joining international efforts to help the government of Bangladesh respond to the crisis. Working closely with trusted humanitarian partners, we helped establish programs to uphold the safety and dignity of those who had survived violence, or who were at risk.

Australia supported the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to establish women-only spaces in Cox’s Bazar, providing more than 53,000 Rohingya women and girls with access to a safe place, counselling and health services. Our funding also enabled UNFPA to help more than 83,000 women and girls recover from sexual and gender-based violence.

The annual monsoon season posed additional risks to the safety and wellbeing of nearly 919,000 displaced Rohingya. Australia supported UNFPA to preposition supplies to ensure they could continue to provide vital health services.

Australia also partnered with BRAC, the Bangladesh-based NGO, to deliver psychosocial and health support to Rohingya victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Our engagement with BRAC supports local leadership in crisis responses and helps build the capacity of Bangladesh civil society to address future crises.

Australia has provided $70 million in humanitarian assistance to Bangladesh and Myanmar for this crisis, making us the fourth‑largest bilateral donor (at June 2018).

The effectiveness of disaster risk reduction and recovery programs

Case study: Australia’s support for resilient infrastructure in the Pacific​

Minimising disruption to power supply is a key component of effective disaster risk reduction and recovery in the Pacific. With this in mind, Australia is helping to:

  • reduce Tonga’s dependence on imported fuel
  • increase the reliability, efficiency and affordability of power
  • improve the resilience of power grids through the Outer Islands Renewable Energy Project.

The project is co-financed by Australia, the Asian Development Bank and the European Union, and is being implemented across nine outer islands, including ‘Eua island.

Tropical Cyclone Gita hit both the main island of Tongatapu and nearby ’Eua at category 4 strength. On Tongatapu, 80 per cent of buildings lost power. In contrast, ’Eua was struck by the same intense winds but less than 20 per cent of its buildings lost power, and this was restored within a week using pre-positioned solar panels. The power system on Tongatapu took six weeks to repair, and would have taken substantially longer without Australian support.

Australia’s investment in resilience in ‘Eua paid off. The benefits post disaster for households, businesses, schools and health clinics were enormous, enabling people to return to work and studies much faster, and reducing losses such as spoiled food in freezers. Given the water supply to most houses in Tonga requires electricity, a more resilient power system also meant better access to clean water and sanitation.

Investing in resilience has enormous benefits, minimising disruption to people’s lives and reducing economic losses. With this in mind, Australia remains committed to collaborative partnerships with governments in the Indo-Pacific to reduce the impacts of disasters.

Review: Our crisis management mechanisms in delivering a coordinated whole-of government response to international crises

The department continues to strive towards world-class crisis management mechanisms.

The Global Watch Office provides 24-hour triage in the event of an incident or crisis overseas, alerting key departmental and other government agency personnel to emerging incidents.

The Consular Emergency Centre responds to more than 62,000 calls a year to help Australians overseas.

Drawing on the lessons learned following Cyclone Gita, the department’s crisis centre and humanitarian operations centre were merged this year into a single entity. The crisis centre is being refurbished to create more collaborative work spaces for internal and other agency personnel.

Training and deployment of the Crisis Response Team (CRT) continued, with CRT or crisis management personnel undertaking joint Australian Defence Force and department planning and training for over 30 exercises. The department led and coordinated Australia’s response to a number of incidents throughout 2017–18, including the deployment of:

  • consular staff to Indonesia in 2017 to mitigate the potential crisis management risks should significant numbers of Australians be affected by the eruption of Mt Agung
  • humanitarian and technical staff to Tonga, drawn from within the department, other government agencies and the private sector, to ensure our whole-of-government response following Cyclone Gita improved the lives of vulnerable people
  • humanitarian and medical staff drawn from our readily deployable Australian Medical Teams (AusMAT), to provide medical relief in the Papua New Guinea highlands.

Collaboration with other domestic agencies, such as Emergency Management Australia, continues to expand (dfat.gov.au/aid/topics/investment-priorities/building-resilience/humanitarian-policy-and-partnerships/Pages/humanitarian-evaluation-publications.aspx).

Review: Our life-saving assistance to vulnerable people in crisis situations

We continually learn from our actions to improve the quality of our humanitarian work. Two major evaluations completed in 2017–18 focused on Myanmar and Papua New Guinea. The evaluation of Australia’s humanitarian assistance to people affected by conflict in Kachin, Shan and Rakhine States in Myanmar between July 2014 and June 2017 found Australia’s humanitarian assistance was effective in reaching over 500,000 people. As recommended, we are continuing to strengthen linkages between humanitarian programming and broader political efforts to better advocate with other donors and the government for unimpeded humanitarian access.

The evaluation of Australia’s response to El Nino drought in Papua New Guinea—which has affected more than 1.33 million people between 2015 and 2017—found Australia’s humanitarian assistance was acceptable to the government of Papua New Guinea in a highly political and sensitive environment. The evaluation rated the majority of individual response investments as satisfactory, although substantial delays resulted in an assessment that the overall response was adequate. The evaluation acknowledged challenges addressing equity, vulnerable people protection, gender equality and social inclusion, in part due to safety concerns.

During the response in Tonga to Cyclone Gita, the department piloted the draft Humanitarian Monitoring and Evaluation Framework in the Pacific. This will be further developed with New Zealand to improve responses to rapid onset disasters. The pilot highlighted an effective, timely response, close alignment with Tonga’s crisis response, and good coordination between Australia, New Zealand, France and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (dfat.gov.au/aid/topics/investment-priorities/building-resilience/humanitarian-policy-and-partnerships/Pages/humanitarian-evaluation-publications.aspx).