What protection can tourists or expatriates outside the European Union expect if things go wrong? Bruno Van de Bossche is a Belgian citizen and professional tour operator, who was the victim of a near-fatal attack last January in the volatile region of Afar, in Ethiopia, near the Eritrean border.
“We were at the end of the world. Some people say that the volcano Erta Ale are the gates of hell, well we were next door.
“At the camp at about three o’clock in the morning, we were attacked by rebels in our sleeping bags. All in all, there were five victims who died and we were seriously wounded.” He recounts.
In total twenty tourists, all of different nationalities were affected. The Ethiopian army evacuated the civilians with the help of Germany.
“We were in a very remote place, so we had to find help. The rescue was synchronised by the German Embassy in Addis Ababa. For the simple reason that Germans were among the victims. Four Germans and two other people were taken hostage by the rebel group. It was the German guide who raised the alarm “. He adds.
An extreme example but it illustrates the importance of consular assistance overseas – and just how important solidarity between Europeans can be in a crisis.
Giorgio Porzio, from the European Consular Crisis Response Division believes this is a right:
“If you are in a Third -country and you are not represented, because you do not have a consulate or embassy from your country there, or you can not access it for whatever reason, then you can turn to another member state and it will assist you as it would assist its own citizens. It stems from the fact that there is a recognised European citizenship in the treaties which gives you lots of rights.”
Among Europeans, France has the largest number of consular and diplomatic organisations. A key organ in the network is the Crisis Centre in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The French Ministry’s Crisis Centre protects French nationals abroad and in some cases Europeans, on a 24/7 basis.
This type of organisation exists in all European capitals, more or less. It is here you can find all manner of advice for travelling abroad. However, the Crisis Centre’s main function is to respond to everything from individual cases to emergencies on a much larger scale.
“The Crisis Centre has four major functions. This is what we call “strategic surveillance”, it monitors what’s happening around the world and sorts out information. Today there’s been a lot going on so you have to extract the useful stuff. The “alert” division reports when something happens. Then there’s “planning” – for each foreign country we have security plans to ensure the safety of French nationals; and then there’s “conducting operations”, where evacuations are coordinated.” Said Serge Mostura, Director of the French Crisis Centre.
The Japanese Tsunami , Arab uprisings, terrorist activity or tension in the Sahel: recent crises of all kinds have shown just how important consular protection is.
A proposal for a Directive of the European Commission is under review to clarify and simplify the co-operation and co-ordination between Member States’ exclusive jurisdiction on this matter.
For example, 6,000 EU citizens were in Libya when the troubles erupted and only eight EU Member States had representation.
Giorgio Porzio, works for the European Consular Crisis Response Division:
“When Member States finally decide to repatriate their citizens, they send aircrafts and ships. It’s theirs and our task to coordinate this and to make sure that the best use possible was made of evacuation means, to avoid for instance ships leaving half empty with people still on the shores – it’s the same things for planes”. He said.
In Senegal, in Western African there is no major crisis at present but, there is a tense atmosphere throughout the region and lots of European tourists. Only 10 out of the of 27 EU member states are represented. Here, France is what is known as a lead State.
For their holidays, lots of Europeans look for the sun outside EU borders. In Senegal, French tourists are by far the most numerous, therefore, in an emergency or a crisis, France has a responsibility to help all EU citizens and in particular, those who have no consular representation.
The French Consulate in Senegal’s capital Dakar is the largest in the country. Most days tasks are mainly administrative. However, if things were to go wrong, whether it be a political conflict or a natural disaster, as a lead state, France would have to play a central role, as Alain Jouret, the French General Consul in Dakar explains:
“In a crisis, we have to coordinate the efforts of all European countries. We’re here to develop safety plans and evacuations if security isn’t ensured by the authorities of the country”.
Consular assistance and European solidarity also applies to the daily emergencies individual tourists face: lost or stolen passports, accidents, serious illness, assaults, or even imprisonment. In these cases, all Member States have the duty to assist people who are not represented by a European country.
“A prison warden told us that he caught a French person. But it wasn’t a French citizen, he was a Czech national and he had just been put in prison. While in prison, he needed clothing, food and medicine. We have to provide him with these and later, we got in touch with the Czech Republic Embassy which was in Rabat. “ Adds Alain.
Every year, it is estimated that more than 90 million holidays or business trips are taken outside the European Union but there are only three countries where all 27 Member States have diplomatic representation: the United States, China and Russia.
The President of an association that defends the interests of European expats, emphasizes the importance of the public being better informed about their rights to consular protection.
Paschalis Papachristopoulos, from “Europeans throughout the World” concludes:
“We would like for instance to see this information diseminated to all citizens in the same way. Like we’ve done for the rights of travellers, with posters in all airports around the EU. The first step has been done in some countries by introducing this right and printing it in the passports. For instance in my Greek passport, there is a specific notion behind with the website of the European Commission indicating that, but very few people actually read that”.
So get the facts right before flying, an essential tip for travellers to make the most out of their time abroad.