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British Consul

Consular representatives have a more restricted range of duties than embassy or high commission staff, but their main role is to look after the interests of British people in difficulty abroad - the most recent figures show that consular assistance and advice is given to more than 52,000 British travellers a year, many of them taking a backpacking trip.

Most are full-time government employees (there are 1,600 consular staff overseas), but just over 250 are ‘Honorary’ officers who do other jobs alongside their consular duties. In some Commonwealth countries, the senior consular missions representing other member countries are called deputy high commissions.

What can a consul do? - You can get help and advice from British diplomatic missions 24 hours a day but if you have a serious problem to deal with such as death, a bad accident, illness or arrest, the consul will step in to advise you, give you relevant contact numbers and, if necessary, speak to local authorities on your behalf. They can act as go-betweens, keeping relatives and friends at home informed - and might be able to exert pressure and influence to assist your case. However, there are few ‘rights’ you have when it comes to getting help from a consul.

Consuls charge for their services (these are laid down by Parliament and aim to cover costs, including staff, accommodation and overheads). Payment is generally made in the country where the service is performed, made in advance and is usually in local currency.

Victim of Theft - If you have money, valuables and tickets stolen, the consul can advise friends or relatives at home on the best way of transferring cash to you. In an emergency, the consul will cash you a sterling cheque if supported by your bank card but there will be a small for the service.

Remember though that your insurance company or representative if on a structured programme may be of help in the first instance.

One of the most common tasks undertaken by consuls is replacing lost or stolen passports. In any one year onsulates issue or amend approximately 500,000 passports. They will also issue emergency passports covering travellers for a one-way journey back to the UK.

If your passport is stolen, or goes missing, you first need to report the loss to the police and ask for a report (required if you want to claim the costs back later). The consul will ask you for full issue details and will want you to provide proof of identity in the form of, for example, credit cards, airline tickets, traveller’s cheques or driving licence with photograph. Once the passport application form has been completed and fee paid for an emergency passport, the document can be issued.

Normally the consul will make checks with the office that originally issued your passport, so the process can take a couple of days - but if you need a replacement in a hurry, they can get one to you in a matter of hours. If you can produce a photocopied page of your passport containing your personal details and number, the consul should be able to carry out the replacement more quickly.

Suffer Ill health

If you become ill or have an accident you must take a look at your Bestbackpackers Travel Insurance policy you will find a 24 hour helpline along with a reporting number to use. You will then be guided to a local hospital or clinic that will be able to help you. Iif you are unlucky enough to have something stolen you must contact the local police and get a theft report from them, you will need this if you wish to make a claim.

Illness and death - The consul will not normally visit you in hospital if you have family, friends or a rep in the country to look after you, but if you are on your own or critically injured, the consul will contact the hospital to find out if there is anything he or she can do.

If the person you are travelling with dies, a consul can give advice about local burials or cremations or give you the name of an experienced international undertaker to bring the body home. If you register the death with the consulate, it can give you a UK death certificate, except in certain countries including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland and South Africa.

Crime and arrest

While consuls cannot investigate a crime, give legal advice, pay legal costs, intervene in court cases or become directly involved in any legal action, they can help you get in touch with local lawyers, interpreters and doctors. They can also advise you whether the country has a state-funded compensation scheme and whether legal aid is available. If neither you nor your family can raise enough money to cover the costs of a defence lawyer, the Foreign Office may in exceptional circumstances allow money for this - but only against a signed undertaking by you to repay.

The consul may attend your trial, depending on its seriousness, and ensure that you have the free services of an interpreter (a requirement of international law). They will also visit you if you have been arrested or imprisoned, and arrange for messages to be sent to relatives and friends.

If a relative is arrested while abroad, you should contact Consular Division at the Foreign Office and alert the consular officer responsible for the country concerned.

Repatriation - Applications for repatriation are considered on an individual basis. As a British citizen, you do not have a right to repatriation - even if you die abroad - and the consulate would have to take various factors into account, such as whether you are insured, whether you are normally resident in the UK and whether family or friends have been asked for help with covering the cost of getting you home. If money is granted to you for repatriation, it would be on the basis of a government loan that you would repay at a later date.

More information

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office website is www.fco.gov.uk/travel and lists contact numbers and addresses of UK embassies and consulates abroad. You can also call the Travel Advice Unit (020 7008 0232/020 7008 0233); for precautionary advice visit www.fco.gov.uk/beforeyougo.