12 Dec 2019

More New Zealanders needing help while overseas, Ministry of Foreign Affairs says

7:37 pm on 12 December 2019

More New Zealanders are needing help while overseas. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs says more people were travelling, including higher numbers of older New Zealanders, which led to a 20 percent increase in consular cases it handled this year.

no caption

Photo: 123rf

In the year to June the ministry responded to 37 emergencies overseas - including natural disasters, accidents and terrorist incidents, and issued 103 travel advisories about overseas destinations.

It received more than 23,000 general inquiries about consular issues, and dealt with 2716 consular cases in the year to June, which was 20 percent more than the previous year.

Ministry chief executive Chris Seed told a parliamentary annual review hearing today the requests were also becoming more complicated.

"In the past year there's been a 20 percent increase in the number of consular cases the ministry led to support New Zealanders around the globe.

"It's noteworthy that we're also seeing an increase in the complexity of those cases," Seed said.

The ministry's five busiest diplomatic posts, in terms of numbers of new consular cases, were in Australia, the United States, China, the United Kingdom and the Cook Islands.

Seed said New Zealand's "offshore footprint" was also expanding with the opening of embassies in Dublin and Stockholm this year, and there were plans to open an embassy next year in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

New premises had been built in Honiara and Niue, while new buildings had opened in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Property refurbishments had been done in Myanmar's Yangon and in the Argentinean capital, Buenos Aires.

"We're very conscious of the need to present the best image of New Zealand abroad, to keep our people and information safe in often dangerous and difficult locations, and to deliver value for money to the New Zealand tax-payer."

Seed said that made management of that portfolio a priority for him and his leadership team.

He said efforts had also been advanced to better understand the needs of New Zealanders, and how to better connect with locals and their operating environments.

Seed said a group of Māori advisers has been appointed to help the ministry better understand and connect with Māori and iwi on trade-related policy issues. It had also established a trade policy engagement unit to foster "credible and comprehensive" consultation on trade negotiations.

He said their five ministerial offices supported the response to around 500 written Parliamentary questions a year, 1200 responses to ministerial letters and a similar number of media enquiries.

"The ministry is sending out 50 per cent more OIA (Official Information Act) responses than it was two years ago."

In answer to a question from National's deputy chair of foreign affairs and trade, Gerry Brownlee about why that was, Seed suggested it was the result of increased interest from the public on international events and on Parliament.

Brownlee suggested it might also reflect the difficulty in getting information out of the ministry.

"Do you think it might also reflect the fact it's sometimes hard to get information that is not publicly available - that a lot of the stuff being asked might be better if it was in the public arena?"

Brownlee said if it was a problem that analysis was needed.

Seed said the ministry was committed to improving the timeliness of its responses.