There will be many people in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) right now who are not getting enough sleep. The conflict in the Middle East involving Israel and Hamas, the war in Syria with its added dimension of foreign (including Australian) fighters, elections in Indonesia and the rise in sectarian violence in Iraq will be occupying policy makers. But it is the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine by separatists on 17 July that will be front and centre of the department's work from both a policy and consular perspective.
Having worked on a number of consular crises from the 2004 Asian tsunami to the hostage-taking of an Australian in Iraq, I have a sense of how the Department will be using the crisis response mechanisms that have been refined over many years.
DFAT headquarters, Canberra. (Flickr/Bentley Smith.)
Within hours of the news of the crash of MH17, DFAT activated the Emergency Call Unit and publicised, including through social media, the emergency number for people to call if they had fears for the safety of family and friends. The Department handled about 1000 calls in the first 24 hours.
Regular consular staff and other Departmental volunteers (particularly from the Department's crisis cadre, a group of more than 200 people specially trained to deal with an incident overseas) were rallied to work in the 24-hour Crisis Centre or be part of the deployed Emergency Response Teams. The purpose-built Crisis Centre is equipped with modern communications and technology systems and serves as the central coordination point for the whole-of-government response to an international crisis. Staff working in the Crisis Centre collate information from overseas posts and other sources; prepare situation reports, briefings and talking points; and implement decisions made by the interdepartmental committee managing the crisis.
Consular staff worked quickly to confirm details of the passengers on board and then to make contact with family members offering support and consular assistance. A consular case officer was dedicated to each family. A number of overseas posts, particularly Warsaw and The Hague, have now assumed a similarly important consular role acting as liaison points, providing information to loved ones and assisting with practicalities.
The Foreign Minister is clearly intimately involved in the consular response in addition to her advocacy and policy activism in the UN Security Council and with counterpart leaders. She told the media she would prefer not to talk about her conversations with the families as she would become too emotional. Her departmental staff will also be feeling the emotional toll. Receiving and identifying bodies, working with disaster victim identification experts, engaging with funeral directors and quarantine agencies and supporting grieving families are never easy tasks.
When I was in South Africa, staff at the High Commission, together with our colleagues in Nigeria, were involved in recovery and support operations following a plane crash in the Democratic Republic of Congo which killed all members of the board of an Australian mining company. Fortunately, many of the consular team had received psychological preparedness training specifically aimed at preparing them for traumatic events. That training, together with adrenalin and a real sense of compassion for the victims' families, helped all of us cope through a difficult time.
In the past few years, the growing number of consular crises has required the Department to focus on training and contingency planning — running regular workshops, conducting (with the Department of Defence) Contingency Planning Assistance Team (CPAT) visits to posts, undertaking exercise rehearsals and practicing responses to particular disaster scenarios both with other government agencies and private sector bodies. The more than 200 officials who have been, or are being, deployed will need to draw on all that training and planning as they help to 'bring Australians home' following the MH17 crisis.