Tuesday, 29 March 2011

When you need Big Brother's help... on the right to consular protection and assistance

Shortly after the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, I went to South Vietnam. As you can imagine, during my stay there I followed closely what was happening as a result of these national disasters. It was one of the main subjects of conversations with other travellers that I met there, too. One thing that kept on being mentioned was how people of different nationalities received various scope of help (or none at all) from the representatives of their governments during and after the crisis. For example, one of our fellow travellers had a flight back scheduled on Friday evening, the 18th of March, with Air France. However, she had received a message on Wednesday evening that her flight had been rescheduled to Thursday evening, the 17th of March, since as of Friday Air France was directing all their planes in the Asian region to Japan - to evacuate French citizens who wanted to come back to France in fear of nuclear radiation. At the same time, I heard from an Australian traveller, that their government had not made any such concessions to Australians living in Japan.

This situation clearly illustrates that in certain situations consumers who found themselves abroad might need help of their government but they will not always receive this help on the same rules and within the same scope. Interestingly, after the tragedy in Japan this has become a topic of conversation and discussions within the European Commission. On the 23rd of March EC released a press statement that EU is about to reinforce citizens' rights to consular protection and assistance in third countries (may be found here). Not many European citizens realize that when they are on holidays abroad in a country where their own Member State is not represented, they may ask for help and assistance representatives of ANY other Member State during emergencies and crisis (which could be important when you were e.g. in Libya, since only 8 Member States have their representatives there). This includes the right to ask to be evacuated as if they were citizens of that Member State. This protection is guaranteed by the EU Treaties (Articles 20(2)(c) and 23 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (Art. 46) and should be granted not only in case of nation-wide crisis (like earthquakes in Japan, political unrest in Libya, etc.) but also in individual emergencies, e.g. when your passport gets stolen. When your lose your passport/money you may ask for some financial support, e.g. money for a flight back, which the assisting Member State will grant you upon authorisation of your home country, who then reimburses the assisting Member State and has a claim back towards you after you arrive safely at home.

The European Commission decided to take some coordination measures in the coming year to ensure day-to-day consular protection of all EU citizens and to increase awareness thereof among citizens (e.g. by giving such information while issuing new passports - ca 20 Member States are using this option at the moment). Moreover, a website had been launched on consular protection for EU citizens.

FAQ on consular protection - read more here.

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