A report emerged this week (thanks Sam) that the UK is gearing up for a possible mass evacuation of British citizens from Syria, with a helicopter carrier and amphibious assault ship to be deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean for exercises after the Olympic Games finish. The exercise has evidently been planned for some time and isn't a direct response to events in Syria, but according to the UK Telegraph, the flotilla could be used to evacuate British citizens from the Middle East if needed.

The French will join the exercise too, with an aircraft carrier, escort ships and a strike force of Rafale fighters.

The Royal Navy's readiness looks to be one result of some serious thinking, rigorous 'lessons learned' processes, parliamentary inquiries and internal reviews since the Arab Spring crises of early 2011. The UK's Foreign & Commonwealth Office was caught unawares at the time of these crises by the hugely politicised response and the dramatically ramped-up expectations of travelers seeking 11th hour rescues. As one observer pointed out to me at the time, the UK 'used to have a very clear policy about what we would offer (in those circumstances). We destroyed it a couple of months ago'.

Evacuations are a huge 'moral hazard' for foreign ministries, with citizens taking risks in the knowledge that their government, and not they, will bear the ultimate responsibility in the event of disaster. Judging by the activity and comments on social media sites in response to FCO releases, Britons were still heading off to Egypt in droves in early February despite the escalating conflict. Though the UK Government urged its citizens in Libya to avail themselves of the still-operating commercial flights before the situation descended into chaos, there were still hundreds of civilians seeking government-assisted evacuation when violence broke out in late February 2011.

Before the Arab Spring, government-funded evacuations were rare. But most developed nations, and plenty of the developing ones too, sent planes to Cairo to bring back their citizens, many of those planes leaving Egypt half-empty.

The result of the UK's consular soul searching is a comprehensive 'implementation report' with detailed plans covering the development of a more crisis-ready overseas network, upgrading and streamlining of the FCO's crisis centres and systems, improved communications with its customers and clearer policies and plans on evacuations. On the latter, the Foreign Office has outlined a pretty comprehensive tightening-up of its evacuation procedures involving agreements between the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence on chartering ships and planes, service level agreements, framework agreements for chartering, and funding policies.

Now, DFAT has probably been involved in its own 'lessons learned' exercise on the political crises of 2011 and the Government's responses.  But unlike the highly transparent FCO process, it seems we will never know the result. In mid-2011, the Department answered a question from the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade about an independent but internal review DFAT had conducted of its delivery of consular services, with a 'particular focus on managing increasing expectations of consular services'. In response to a request that it be disclosed to the Committee, DFAT asserted that it was an 'internal working paper and it is the practice of successive governments not to provide such documents to the Committee' (my emphasis).

DFAT will point to the 'do not travel' advice to Syria on its Smartraveller site. Smart it is, and unequivocal. But, for the moment, Australians, like the British, readily ignore travel warnings until it's too late. Then they expect their government to rescue them regardless.

As in the UK, the Australian Government's response to the Cairo crisis and evacuations was heavily criticised in the press and in social media — unfairly, I argued at the time. But I will not argue with criticisms of DFAT's opacity, and the unfavourable comparison between it and the UK Foreign Office on its readiness to disclose its inner workings on issues of concern to the Australian public.

Syria is the next potential flash point. I challenge DFAT to provide information on its preparedness to deal with it.

Photo by Flickr user mashleymorgan.