If you go, there's no getting out of jail free

There's only so much the Australian government's consular staff can do for travellers who find themselves in difficulty overseas.

IF YOU get into trouble overseas, do you expect the Australian government to come galloping to your rescue?

It seems many people do, with demand for consular services rising and requests stretching from the reasonable to the ridiculous.

Requests made of consular staff range from replacement passports to "can you pay my $120,000 hospital bill", "can you help me get out of jail" or even "I've run out of my medication; can you get me some more please".

Each year, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade provides consular assistance to more than 185,000 Australians overseas and many of the requests received are beyond the scope of what consular staff can do.

"Travellers' expectations of consular services vary widely," says a senior spokesman for DFAT, Simon Merrifield. "Sometimes [travellers] do not understand the limit of what consular assistance we can provide."

Merrifield says that while it is hard to quantify the types of demands received by consular staff, there has been a 60 per cent increase in the number of "active cases" in the past five years, reflecting the increasing complexity of cases handled by consular staff. More than 20,000 cases each year are deemed to be "Australians in difficulty" and many are people travelling without insurance.

A travel medicine specialist who has worked with Australian travellers and expatriates overseas, Dr Tony Gherardin, says many Australian travellers have the attitude that "someone will look after me if I get into trouble".

Gherardin, who is the national medical adviser to The Travel Doctor-TMVC, believes DFAT's high-profile work in situations such as earthquakes and tsunamis has helped perpetuate this view."These [high-profile responses] have been effective and laudable but create an impression in many people's minds that the Australian government will always respond to crises, big or small," he says.

Gherardin says he has witnessed demands ranging from people expecting the government to pay their medical bills to people who have simply run out of money and want the government to pay for their flight home.

"Consular services should not be viewed as a default for a lack of planning, insurance or commonsense," he says.

Merrifield says the affordability of overseas travel has led to increased numbers of Australians going overseas for the first time, which has added to the consular load. Australians are also travelling at a younger age, going to previously remote locations and taking part in many adventure activities.

Compounding demand on consular services is the huge percentage of Australians who go overseas without travel insurance. Recent surveys suggest about one-third of Australians heading overseas have no insurance - a figure that would equate to more than 2.2 million travellers based on official departure statistics.

"The reasons would appear to be either those travellers don't even consider risk and insurance, or deem their trip to be 'safe'," Gherardin says. "Some people think travel insurance is just about lost tickets or bags and many do not realise it is essential for paying for medical access and hospital care in most countries."

Merrifield says travellers are less likely to buy insurance when they are travelling to countries they deem to be safe, such as New Zealand, and fail to consider the potential costs if things do go wrong.

Others believe they won't get sick overseas because they enjoy good health at home.

Merrifield says along with large numbers of medical cases, DFAT last year dealt with more than 1000 cases of Australians arrested overseas, some of whom ended up in overseas prisons.

This is another area where consular services are limited.

Consular staff can ensure arrested Australians have access to legal advice, can attend their trials to help ensure they do not suffer discrimination and can visit them in prison to ensure they have access to adequate food and medical care but cannot provide legal advice, pay legal fees or intervene in another country's legal processes.

Merrifield says some problems arise because travellers do not understand cultural or legal differences between Australia and other countries and advice provided on the Smartraveller website (smartraveller.gov.au) is aimed at bridging this gap.

Next week: How to choose the right travel insurance policy.


Counting costs

Travellers used to relying on the public health system in Australia can get a nasty shock if hospitalised overseas. Dr Tony Gherardin recalls the case of a young Australian man who was in intensive care in Asia after a car accident and had no insurance to cover the bill. The man was repatriated to Australia, where he later died, and his family was left $200,000 in debt. A spokesman for DFAT, Simon Merrifield, warns that the department cannot pay for medical services and many families have had to take out mortgages or sell assets to pay costs for uninsured travellers.