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Support Australians overseas

Icon shows two hands around a compass marker with Australia within symbolising Australians getting support where ever in the world.
As the year unfolded, the department reprioritised resources from ‘business as usual’ to prolonged crisis support for Australians at home and overseas in response to the bushfires and COVID-19. We also worked with Australian Public Service colleagues in other agencies, including Services Australia, to help Australians directly affected by the pandemic.


COVID-19 has had a profound impact on Australians in every part of the world, with unprecedented demand for consular services and assistance. Against fast-moving and unpredictable developments, staff in Canberra and across the overseas network worked 24/7 to assist those most in need. We supported over 26,600 Australians to return in complex and unpredictable circumstances, including in locations heavily impacted by the pandemic. We provided fast, comprehensive and accurate information to millions of Australians overseas enabling over 350,000 to return to Australia without direct assistance.

But COVID-19 was not our only consular challenge. Before and during the pandemic, we managed a demanding load of work not related to COVID-19. We maintained a high standard of consular service to Australians in need.

Performance measure

How we rate our performance*

A responsive consular service through our 24/7 global network, focusing on Australians most in need.

On track

Source: Corporate Plan 2019–20 p. 22, PBS 2019–20 program 2.1 p. 39 | Funding: PBS 2019–20 program 2.1

*Our assessment is based on our analysis of our consular case management database, consular mailboxes and other systems used to manage and track the provision of consular assistance

Our performance

In the course of the year, and in addition to the pandemic response, the department managed an average of more than 1,200 ongoing consular cases at any one time. This included high-profile, complex and resource-intensive cases, such as death penalty and kidnapping cases. We rate our performance against this measure as ‘on track’.

We coordinated the inter-agency response to three criminal kidnap cases. We also managed the release and return of two Australians from detention in Iran and of an Australian held hostage in Afghanistan. These cases demonstrate the value and importance of discreet and quiet diplomatic efforts in resolving sensitive consular cases.

On a business as usual footing, before COVID-19 the Consular Emergency Centre responded to over 35,000 public phone enquiries.

In January, as parts of Australia were still affected by the bushfires, the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China took hold. The virus created a complex situation for Australians and permanent residents in Hubei province. On 29 January the government decided to conduct an assisted departure operation on public health grounds of Australians from Wuhan, and this soon expanded to include Australians on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan. Combined, we helped over 700 Australians return.

Table 1: Consular services provided to Australians





Australian resident departures1





Cases of Australians hospitalised given general welfare and guidance





Cases of Australians evacuated to another location for medical purposes





Cases of next of kin of Australians who died overseas given guidance and assistance





Cases of Australians having difficulty arranging their own return to Australia given guidance and assistance





Number of Australians who have been assisted in a crisis, including to return to Australia





Cases of Australians arrested overseas





Cases of Australians in prison





Cases of Australians given general welfare and guidance





Total number of cases involving Australians in difficulty who received consular assistance





Notarial acts





Total assistance – total number of cases of Australians provided with consular services





Australians in financial difficulty who were lent public funds





*Corrections to 2018–19 report

  1. Statistics for 2016–17 draw from ABS data. Statistics for 2017–18, 2018–19 and 2019–20 draw from Home Affairs data. All figures include permanent long-term and short-term departures of Australian citizens and permanent residents
  2. In previous years this category reported enquiries about Australians overseas who could not be contacted by their next of kin. Under the extraordinary circumstances of COVID-19, in 2019–20 this data also captures the number of Australians who received crisis assistance during the period, including to return to Australia. This figure comprises all crisis-related cases, including those related to the Whakaari/White Island volcano eruption and over 26,600 Australians who were impacted by the pandemic and received support to come home
  3. This figure shows the total number of cases of Australians in prison during the year
  4. Welfare and guidance figure includes the following sub-categories: general (four), welfare and other serious matters (5,085), theft (160), assaults (278) and child parental responsibility (276)
  5. Figures include notarial services performed by overseas posts, and services in Canberra and at state and territory offices in Australia

The department led this complex operation. In China and from Australia, we worked closely with government agencies, Qantas and international partners to help hundreds of Australians and permanent residents return from Wuhan. The first flight landed on 3 February and the second on 9 February. We deployed six officers from Beijing and Shanghai and four Crisis Response Team members to Wuhan to assist Australians and support the assisted departures.

In a short period following this operation, we scaled up our response to what would become the largest and most complex consular challenge in our history.

Row of consular staff sitting at desks awaiting to assist departing Australian's in Pretoria.
High Commissioner to South Africa Gita Kamath (centre) with Australian High Commission staff at the assembly point in Pretoria for Australians departing South Africa on Australian Government-facilitated commercial flights [DFAT/Australian High Commission in Pretoria]

HOM and Second Secretary talk with two health care professionals in high protective gear about boarding flights.
Deputy Head of Mission in Lima Brendan Hodgson and Second Secretary Christina Yiannakis discuss health checks with health care professionals for Australian passengers preparing to board a Qantas flight from Lima during Peru’s COVID-19 State of Emergency [DFAT/Australian Embassy in Lima]

The department’s consular response to COVID-19

The declaration of a global pandemic in March resulted in severe disruptions to international travel, including a lack of commercial flights worldwide. Significant numbers of Australians across the world sought to return. Harnessing our consular capability and global reach, we shifted focus to help sick Australians and those stranded overseas.

On 9 March the department advised Australians to reconsider taking an overseas cruise at that time. On 13 March the government advised all Australians to reconsider the need to travel overseas. On 17 March the government advised Australians overseas who wanted to return to do so as soon as possible by commercial means. On 18 March the government raised the travel advice for anywhere overseas to ‘Do Not Travel’.

From 13 March to 30 June, over 350,000 Australians returned safely, including over 26,600 who were supported to return via a range of facilitated commercial flights.

Our COVID-19 consular response was multi-faceted and underpinned by our network of embassies, high commissions, consulates, honorary consuls and representative offices. It involved officials at all levels, up to and including the Foreign Minister. Our staff drew on their deep understanding of local operating environments and strong relationships to:

  • support over 26,600 Australians to return from across the globe
  • negotiate safe passage for more than 6,500 Australians to disembark 51 cruise ships, as well as helping more than 230 Australian crew on these ships to return
  • assist with more than 315 flights from more than 90 countries to help Australians return, including through the direct facilitation of 63 non-scheduled commercial flights
  • organise sweeper flights and ground transport options to transfer passengers to international airports (for example, in the Philippines) and to regional flight hubs in South America and the Middle East
  • secure seats for Australians on: flights to Australia organised by other governments to repatriate their nationals; cargo flights; medivac flights; RAAF flights returning from delivering humanitarian supplies
  • respond to more than 75,000 phone calls through our emergency and consular call units.

We provided direct consular assistance to more than 2,600 Australians overseas who experienced welfare or other issues as a result of COVID-19 measures. This included 94 Australians who tested positive to COVID-19 and 305 Australians who were quarantined in a hospital, hotel or at home, based on local requirements. Sadly, 10 Australians who tested positive overseas died as a result of COVID-19. The department provided financial assistance through the Travellers’ Emergency Loan scheme to 519 Australians in difficulty overseas (383 of these as a result of COVID-19), and kept Australians informed of developments during the crisis. Smartraveller provided real-time information relevant to their locations, covering travel restrictions, available flights to Australia and advice on sheltering in place.

Figure 12: Smartraveller supporting the COVID-19 response, 21 January–30 June*  We published 1949 updates to travel advice for 177 destinations. Over 14 million subscription emails were sent. Over 115,000 critical alert SMS sent. A 5 fold increase in subscribers. Over 2,200 facebook posts. Over 2,400 tweets. 13,500 direct message responses. 12,980 email responses. Over 63 million website page views. We raised all destinations to level 4 – Do not travel for the first time in Smartraveller history. This first COVID-19 related update was published on January 21 2020.

Informing Australian travellers

Performance measure

How we rate our performance*

Australians have information to prepare for safe travel overseas and are empowered to help themselves:

  • 100 per cent of Travel Advisories reviewed bi-annually for posts in a volatile risk environment and/or where there are high Australian interests, and
  • 100 per cent of Travel Advisories reviewed annually for all other posts


Source: Corporate Plan 2019–20 p. 22, PBS 2019–20 program 2.1 p. 39 | Funding: PBS 2019–20 program 2.1

*Our assessment is based on in-built system reporting tools, analysis of Smartraveller data and communications with subscribers

Our performance

Smartraveller promotes safe travel behaviour and empowers Australians to help themselves overseas. The Smartraveller website provides travel advice and information about our consular services to help Australians make informed decisions about their travel and avoid problems while away. Smartraveller also provides clear public messaging during a crisis.

Before and during the pandemic, we used Smartraveller, industry partnerships and public outreach to ensure Australians living or travelling overseas had access to accurate, up-to-date information. We assess our performance against this measure as ‘achieved’.

We launched our upgraded Smartraveller website on 21 November. It is simpler, easy to navigate, accessible and user-friendly. New and upgraded features include an enhanced subscription service for travel updates, critical alerts by SMS, and news. It also includes improved crisis communication functionality with crisis and alert bars.

We issued 2,108 updates to travel advisories for 177 destinations, and published numerous news bulletins and social media posts on events. We reviewed 100 per cent of travel advisories at least twice. We updated all travel advisories as part of the Smartraveller website redevelopment project and also updated them all at least once—and many on multiple occasions—with COVID-19 related information.

Figure 13: Smartraveller website use  We’ve received 84 million Smartraveller website hits and 35 million unique page views. 1 in 5 people visited the site more than once. 193,940 new subscribers to the new subscription service. 258,656 facebook followers, up 41%. 32,758 Twitter followers, up 28%. Smartraveller’s most visited country pages were Indonesia (918,543, up 129% from 2018–19), Japan (667,449, up 483% from 2018–19), Italy (585,973, up 617% from 2018–19), Thailand (463,106, up 167% from 2018–19) and Singapore (429,923, up 473% from 2018–19).

Our new Smartraveller ‘check your travel smarts’ campaign highlighted the importance of travel planning and preparation, as well as taking personal responsibility and a self-reliant approach to travel. Our multi-channel strategy ran across television, online video, search, digital and social media advertising, and included in-language material to target culturally and linguistically diverse communities. We also partnered with Red Frogs Australia and the Nicole Fitzsimons Foundation to promote safe travel messages to young people. This included publishing an overseas survival guide for school leavers and delivering travel safety presentations to schools across Australia.

The department maintained strong relationships with the travel, insurance and tourism industries. These networks proved valuable during COVID-19 as we worked with industry to provide information and assistance to Australians in need.

We further strengthened our public outreach by publishing the 2018–19 Consular State of Play report—a snapshot of the number and types of consular services provided to Australians overseas. This helps the public and the media to better understand our work and its limits. We responded to 1,972 consular-related media enquiries—77 per cent of all media enquiries received by the department.

Responding to crises overseas

The department leads Australia’s whole-of-government response to overseas crises. Our Global Watch Office provides real time information to help decision-making and initial crisis response.

Performance measure

How we rate our performance*

The department is prepared to respond to overseas crises:

  • 100 per cent of crisis action plans reviewed and exercised annually for countries of resident accreditation

On track

Source: Corporate Plan 2019–20 p. 22, PBS 2019–20 program 2.1 p. 40 | Funding: PBS 2019–20 program 2.1

The PBS on p. 40 incorrectly referred to reviewing and exercising Travel Advisories. The correct performance measure, as set out above, is to review and exercise crisis action plans

*Our assessment is based on lessons learned from our international responses, exercises and training programs, case studies, internal and external feedback. It is also informed by analysis of data in our registration and IT systems used during COVID-19 to track flights, cruise ships and Australians registered overseas

Performance measure

How we rate our performance*

Effective coordination of whole-of-government responses to crises overseas.

On track

Source and Funding: PBS 2019–20 program 2.1 p. 39

*Our assessment is based on lessons learnt from our international responses, case studies, internal and external feedback

Our performance

In addition to COVID-19, the department led whole-of-government responses to a number of overseas incidents and crises during the year, including:

  • civil unrest in Hong Kong
  • a measles outbreak in Samoa
  • the Whakaari/White Island volcano eruption in New Zealand
  • Tropical Cyclone Harold in the Pacific.

We deployed members of our highly trained and rapidly deployable Crisis Response Team and activated the department’s Emergency Call Unit. We also supported the response to the bushfires in January, working with Emergency Management Australia to coordinate Australian jurisdictions’ responses to 156 offers of international assistance from 70 countries. This included embedding staff in Emergency Management Australia. We rate our assessment against these measures as ‘on track’.

A Fijian military force personnel watches his Fijian colleague chain saw a large fallen tree.
Republic of Fiji Military Forces Ordinary Seaman Epeli Bale (right) and Corporal Simeli Nitaboko clear a fallen tree in Victoria during Operation Bushfire Assist. The department worked with Emergency Management Australia to coordinate Australian jurisdictions’ responses to 156 offers of international assistance from 70 countries [Department of Defence/Kieren Whiteley]

Whakaari/White Island volcanic eruption

The Whakaari/White Island volcano in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand, erupted on 9 December. Of the 21 people killed, 17 were Australian citizens or residents.

We responded quickly, sending staff from the high commission in Wellington and consular officers from Canberra to Auckland, Whakatane and Waikato. Our staff worked with Royal Caribbean Lines to support affected families and loved ones. We also expedited passport arrangements and helped relatives to travel quickly to New Zealand.

Our close collaboration with authorities in New Zealand and Australia—including state and territory governments—facilitated the swift medical evacuation of 12 injured Australians and one permanent resident from New Zealand, including complex arrangements for their reception and ongoing care in Australia. The department also supported the Australian Federal Police to assist New Zealand authorities with disaster victim identification.

A crisis during the pandemic, Tropical Cyclone Harold swept through the Pacific in April, just as the effects of COVID-19 were being felt more intensely in Australia and around the world. We worked closely with the Royal Australian Air Force to deliver humanitarian relief supplies, and to assist 109 Australians and permanent residents—and 12 approved foreign nationals—to depart impacted countries.

We bolstered our preparedness to respond to the breadth and complexity of future overseas crises we may face in our region and beyond. We implemented new ways to help posts test and practise crisis response plans, and introduced a new crisis registration system. During COVID-19 this system allowed us to:

  • provide targeted consular assistance to those most in need
  • inform decision-making on facilitated flights
  • provide advice to registered Australians on local conditions and other commercial flight options where available.

Crisis Action Plans are a fundamental planning and preparation tool for overseas posts, covering all countries to which posts are accredited. We updated, reviewed and exercised all plans and developed a COVID-19 annex for use by posts in responding to the pandemic. We adopted a cloud-based platform using the whole-of-government GovTEAMS to share the department’s
230+ plans in real time. This enhanced our whole-of-government contingency planning and information sharing.

Effective inter-agency coordination is central to our leadership of a whole-of-government response to overseas crises. We led four joint DFAT–Defence Crisis Preparedness Assurance Team visits to Southeast Asia (Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines), Africa (Zimbabwe, Kenya and Ethiopia), Papua New Guinea and the Middle East (Jordan and Israel). The regional format enhanced our planning for multi-country crises and whole-of-government collaboration. Our staff also participated in 12 joint exercises, including the Australian Joint Warfighting Series, Talisman Sabre and Exercise Croix du Sud. These exercises highlight our capability to provide foreign policy and humanitarian advice and assistance alongside Defence and other agencies. During the Wuhan assisted departures operation we worked with the Departments of Health and Agriculture, Water and the Environment, and the Australian Border Force to have Australian Medical Assistance Teams (AUSMAT), border and biosecurity officials on those flights.

We further built our crisis preparedness by delivering contingency planning and crisis management training to more than 200 staff before they were deployed overseas. We delivered regional crisis management workshops for our posts in South and Southeast Asia. An innovative pilot of live testing exercises—based on a trial between select posts and the department’s Crisis Centre—was a useful and low-cost way to enhance crisis preparedness. It enabled posts to exercise and test crisis plans with Canberra-based officials in real-time and real-world settings. Live testing will now be rolled out across the global network.

Passports: Efficiency and integrity of the passport system

Performance measure

How we rate our performance*

The department maintains a high standard in processing passport applications, investigating and prosecuting fraud:

  • 95 per cent of passports processed within 10 business days
  • 98 per cent of priority passports processed within two business days
  • 100 per cent of identified high risk passport applications scrutinised by specialist staff
  • 90 per cent of administrative investigations finalised within five business days, and
  • 95 per cent of referrals to prosecuting authorities accepted for prosecutio


Source: Corporate Plan 2019–20 p. 21, PBS 2019–20 program 2.2 pp. 41–42 | Funding: PBS 2019–20 program 2.2

*Our assessment is informed by internal data sources tracking delivery against targets

Our performance

Passport demand told two very different stories during the year.

Before COVID-19, demand for passports was at a historically high level—1.4 million applications by the end of February, a 7.2 per cent increase against the same period the previous year. The onset of COVID-19 saw a sharp decline in passport applications, followed by three months of unprecedented low demand. We issued 1,745,340 passports in 2019–20—an 18 per cent drop compared to 2018–19. Of these, 134,787 were priority passports, 27 per cent fewer than in 2018–19.

We met all of our passport service standards. We processed 96 per cent of passports within 10 business days and 98 per cent of priority passports within two business days. We met these targets by enhancing our surge capacity planning to better respond during periods of peak demand, and improving our efficiency and production workflows.

We referred 48,464 passport applications to our face comparison experts for specialist manual assessment. We identified three cases of passport identity fraud, all of which were historic.

Of the 182 administrative investigations we completed, 97 per cent were finalised within five business days. We refused to process 73 applications on suspicion of fraud or dishonesty in the application, with most decisions related to forged parental consent for child passports.

Six matters were referred to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. It accepted five of these cases for prosecution and one remains under assessment. The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions also finalised its assessment of one 2018–19 brief and accepted it for prosecution.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs cancelled 129 passports of reportable child sex offenders. Competent authorities (usually state or territory police) requested that a further 275 offenders without passports be refused travel documents should they apply. These actions were taken under the Australian Passports Act 2005 administered by the department.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs also cancelled 43 passports and refused two passports in 2019–20 on national security and law enforcement grounds other than for child sex offenders.

Passport staff supporting the government’s COVID-19 response

COVID-19 had a dramatic impact on passport demand between March and June. With fewer staff needed to process applications, the department responded quickly by redeploying passport staff to support the broader Australian Government response to the pandemic.

In the early weeks of COVID-19, passport employees worked in consular emergency call units operating out of our state and territory offices. From early March passport staff redeployed to Services Australia offices to help Australians who had lost their jobs due to COVID-19. By the end of May 243 employees—just over 40 per cent of the department’s total passport staff—had been redeployed to Services Australia roles.

Some of our passport offices made exceptional individual contributions to the government’s COVID-19 evacuation efforts overseas. In early February, staff in our Sydney office worked into the night to process passports so Qantas crew could depart for China’s Hubei province to return stranded Australians. In early April, staff in our Melbourne office processed close to 200 financial transactions within 48 hours to facilitate an evacuation flight for Australians from Peru.

Figure 14: 2019–20 passport statistics  70% - highest to date 14.6 million Australians have a current passport 31,073 Passports reported lost or stolen 24% Applicants were aged 0-5 or 60+ End to end, the number of passports printed would stretch from Byron Bay to Noose Heads.

Passport-related support for bushfire-affected clients

Many Australians whose homes and personal belongings were destroyed in the 2019–20 bushfires used their passports to help establish their identity. If these documents were lost or damaged in the fires, the department helped by providing replacement passports free of charge.

We put in place a streamlined replacement process. No application form was required, only basic information to confirm a passport holder’s identity, and that they were in a bushfire-affected area. Applications were also handled directly by our state and territory passport offices—rather than centrally—which made processing quicker and collection a little easier. We issued 208 free replacement passports and on average most applications were processed in less than a week.

The department also facilitated access to its passport face-matching service so Services Australia could fast-track financial assistance to those affected by the fires.

Client satisfaction

Performance measure

How we rate our performance*

Clients are satisfied with passport services, including online services:

  • 60 per cent of applications commenced online, and
  • 85 per cent satisfaction rate of overall passport service from client survey


Source: Corporate Plan 2019–20 p. 22, PBS 2019–20 program 2.2 pp. 41–42 | Funding: PBS 2019–20 program 2.2

*Our assessment is informed by delivering targets, using internal data sources and quarterly survey results

Our performance

The department places a premium on client satisfaction with its passport services. To ensure rigorous performance measurement, we continued our quarterly independent surveys conducted by ORIMA Research. Overall, 93 per cent of respondents rated the department’s passport services as satisfactory or very satisfactory, exceeding our target of 85 per cent. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, satisfaction levels continued to increase, with ORIMA’s quarterly survey ending April 2020 reporting the highest ‘very satisfied’ rating on record.

Australians continued to embrace our online application service as an alternative to paper forms. The proportion of clients using online passport applications surpassed our target of 60 per cent, increasing from 68 per cent in 2018–19 to 70 per cent in 2019–20.

Delivering the R series passport

Performance measure

How we rate our performance*

Delivery of the R series passport by 2020–21.

Not on track

Source: Corporate Plan 2019–20 p. 22, PBS program 2.2 p. 41 | Funding: PBS 2019–20 program 2.2

*Our assessment is based on progress of R Series Passport development

Our performance

The next generation of Australian passports—the R series—will build on the world-leading security features of the current P series passport, designed to prevent forgeries and detect any alterations.

Progress to deliver the R series by 2020–21 has been directly affected by COVID-19. The pandemic’s impact on international travel, passport issuing rates, and manufacturers’ longer lead times for key components meant we deferred the release date to 2021–22.