UKFCO: Straight Talk on Consular Work, and Consuls Don’t Do Chicken Coops, All right?

On April 4, 2012, William Hague, UK’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs gave a speech where he talked about the role of the British consular services:


[…] I want to describe what we are doing in a vital area of the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but one which rarely receives so much attention: strengthening Britain’s consular diplomacy.
[L]ast year in Bangladesh, Foreign Office staff rescued four girls from forced marriage in a single day and returned them safely to Britain, including one girl who had been kept chained to her bed.

As these stories show, consular work is a very personal business.

It touches the lives of British citizens in difficult and sometimes extreme circumstances.

It is the only way most people come into contact with the Foreign Office, and it is one of our main responsibilities as a Department.
Britons make more than 55 million individual trips overseas every year, and at least 6 million of our nationals live abroad for some of or all of the time. In the space of a year, approximately 6,000 Britons get arrested, and at any one time more than 3,250 British nationals are in prison around the world. At least 10% of all the murders of Britons in the last two years took place overseas, and on average more than one hundred British nationals die abroad each week.

As you can imagine, this produces an immense demand for our services. In fact, just under two million people contact the Foreign Office for some form of consular assistance each year: that is more than 37,000 people a week.

When you are aware of these vast numbers, you can understand why it is that Embassies cannot pay your bills, give you money or make travel arrangements for you, and why we cannot arrange funerals or repatriate bodies. We try to look after everybody in the same way, and to be consistent in how we help people whether they are rich or poor, famous or unknown.

We also have to observe the law. That means we cannot help you enter a country if you do not have a valid passport or necessary visa. We cannot get you better treatment in hospital or prison than is given to local people, and we cannot get you out of prison. We cannot resolve your property or other legal disputes for you. We cannot override the local authorities, such as police investigating crimes. And we cannot give you legal advice: consular staff are not lawyers.

There are also cases where members of the public waste time and scarce resources with ludicrous requests.

It is not our job, for example, to book you restaurants while you are on holiday. This is obvious, you may think. But nonetheless it came as a surprise to the caller in Spain who was having difficulty finding somewhere to have Christmas lunch.

If like a man in Florida last year, you find ants in your holiday rental, we are not the people to ask for pest control advice.

If you are having difficulty erecting a new chicken coop in your garden in Greece as someone else was, I am afraid that we cannot help you.

Equally, I have to say that we are not the people to turn to

  • if you can’t find your false teeth,
  • if your sat nav is broken and you need directions,
  • if you are unhappy with your plastic surgery,
  • if your jam won’t set, if you are looking for a dog-minder while you are on holiday,
  • if your livestock need checking on,
  • if you would like advice about the weather,
  • or if you want someone to throw a coin into the Trevi fountain for you because you forgot while you were on holiday and you want your marriage to succeed.
  • And our commitment to good relations with our neighbours does not, I am afraid, extend to translating ‘I love you’ into Hungarian, as we were asked to do by one love-struck British tourist. There are easier ways to find a translation.

These are a just a few examples of bizarre demands that get put to our staff overseas.

Criticism that is sometimes levelled against us should be viewed in that light. An effective consular service does not mean a nanny state.

So we ask British nationals to be responsible, to be self-reliant and to take sensible precautions.

Bullets and italics added above for emphasis.  Read the full text here.

Sounds like a reasonable request, unless you’re the one who has to erect the chicken coop. Tee-hee!

We think Secretary Hague did a good job explaining the consular work of his FCO staff.  That’s important as it helps the public manage their expectations of the Service. We can’t ever remember a U.S. Secretary of State trying to school the American public on what the embassy can/cannot do for them overseas. No wonder, they mostly think our folks are in perpetual happy hour when in fact, a lot of our consular folks around the world do not get home at 5 o’clock. We have over 260 posts overseas, and we can assure you that somewhere in the world, at any given night, a consular officer is awake assisting an American in distress. Sometimes, like clock work, our compatriots overseas need assistance at 4:45 pm on Friday afternoons. Or a few might decide to leave abusive foreign spouses or partners at midnight on a weekend, several weekends a year. Many times, they have to hold the hands of duty officers who have never assisted an American in distress before, or get their ears burn when a duty officer give their home phone numbers to an irate American on the phone. They have to deal not just with visa applicants, but also victims of crimes, death, and notification of next of kin, morgue visit, and things like that.

We think that the consular career track is probably the most under appreciated cone in the Foreign Service.  The members of the American public who have the misfortune to need their assistance are often unhappy about what services are afforded them. “You will hear from my congressman!” is a common enough threat within embassy walls ranging in reasons from bad prison food, crowded jail cell, some gentleman’s inability to take his/her spouse back to the United States asap, etc. Those whose problems overseas are happily resolved, are too happy to leave and be back in the United States that they often times do not bother to tell their congressional representatives how our embassy helped them overseas.

Of course, we often hear high level officials talk about the protection of Americans overseas as one of the most important function of the State Department when they go before Congress for budget hearings. But when we look at the annual promotion statistics of the Foreign Service, we’re still seeing officers who do one of the most important function of the agency being beaten promotion wise and in ambassadorial appointments by the jaw-jaw guys. Which is curious and all given that it is an important function ….