Rachel Popplewell

Pro Consul - Canberra

Guest blogger for UK in Australia

Part of UK in Australia

8th August 2017 Canberra, Australia

Consular – what’s that?

High Commissioner Menna Rawlings presenting Robert and Sandy with their marriage certificate

As a Yorkshire lass who has lived in Australia for 5 years, I was thrilled 10 months ago to get a job at the British High Commission in Canberra assisting my fellow Brits in need – and the range of ways we can help has really surprised me!

A consular officer’s primary focus is to assist British Nationals in distress abroad – focusing on the most vulnerable. In other words, we’re here to help Brits (and sometimes their families back in the UK) who find themselves in a difficult situation in a foreign country they either live in, or are visiting.

Part of my job is issuing Emergency Travel Documents to Brits whose passport isn’t available, due to being lost, stolen, or expired. Many people think we issue full passports, but we don’t – that’s all done in the UK.

Often consular work is simply pointing people in the right direction to access the help they need, so making local contacts is important, and the UK Government website is also a useful tool (www.gov.uk), as it’s very comprehensive.

In a crisis, consular staff are usually the people in high visibility vests, at a foreign airport for example, advising Brits what to do in the aftermath of a natural disaster, or other horrific incidents, and keeping the Foreign Office in London informed so our travel advice can be as accurate as possible.

UK Rapid Deployment Team members at work in Tacloban

Consular staff also visit British Nationals who are imprisoned abroad if they want us to. Often they simply want us to inform their family back in the UK where they are, and how they are. But we also check that they’re being treated fairly and are receiving their legal rights.

Another part of the job is liaising with local authorities such hospitals, social workers or police for Brits who have become the victims of crime, have been injured, or taken ill, and we then visit them in hospital, and send back updates to their family in the UK if they want us to.

It’s usually consular staff who are contacted by local police when a British person has died and when that happens we throw all our resources at locating the family and liaise with the UK police to ensure the family is informed by the authorities and has all the information on who to contact in the foreign country. In cases of death there is also a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes on, including speaking to funeral directors, airlines, coroners and police to make sure the deceased gets home to their family. This is a really important but sad part of our job. And while our consular staff are very professional, we’re also very empathetic, and I’m not ashamed to say I’ve (privately) shed a few tears over some of the tragic cases I’ve dealt with.

While all parts of the job are equally important, there are certain aspects of it that really make me look forward to a particular day, for instance performing citizenship ceremonies for people becoming British, which I love doing as it makes me feel very patriotic.

A citizenship ceremony, performed by Deputy High Commissioner Ingrid Southworth in Canberra

But the thing I love most are the same sex marriages we’re able to perform in Australia. Under UK law, British citizens are allowed to marry in British diplomatic posts overseas where (like Australia) the local authorities do not object and there are no facilities for a same sex couple to marry under local law – as long as one of the people getting married is a British citizen. We have performed more than 400 same sex marriages in Australia, and it is truly one of the most joyous consular services we provide to our Brits abroad.

As the consular officer, I do all the legal parts; I take the couple’s marriage notice, and write out the register and certificate. I then watch the High Commissioner and Deputy High Commissioner have a good natured squabble about who will have the honour of performing the ceremony! I really get to know the couples, and I can honestly say every one of them has been a joy to deal with.

The ceremony for Ben and Simon in April 2017

Having met many consular colleagues from posts throughout the world while doing my training, I can tell you they are quite remarkable people, and in my opinion, finding such upbeat, caring, resilient people to fill consular roles and deal with the things they do day in and day out, is a great Foreign Office achievement.

So, in answer to the question ‘What is consular?’, in a nut shell, it’s part social worker, part mediator, part citizens advice bureau, part wedding coordinator, part ‘problem fixer’ and part sounding board….…and I wouldn’t change it for the world!

2 comments on “Consular – what’s that?

Comments are closed.