Holiday crisis: Is Help At Hand?

There are limits to what the British embassy can offer in a crisis, says Mark MacKenzie
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The Independent Travel

If, in the near future, you should find yourself in a spot of bother overseas, take heart from the fact that you're not far from home. Each year, Britain's 200 or so embassies and consulates around the world deal with 3.5 million enquiries from those in various types of trouble.

Just how varied that trouble can be came to light recently with the publication of British Behaviour Abroad, a report which, for the first time, brings together comprehensive "incident data" on the nature and frequency of problems experienced by Brits abroad.

"Britons overseas are both victims and perpetrators of crime just as they are in the UK," says Nic Bailey, head of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's (FCO) Know Before You Go Campaign, the government advisory service behind the report, which offers travel information on more than 217 destinations worldwide. "The results [of the report] show that travelling overseas isn't necessarily dangerous," says Mr Bailey, "but it does highlight some of the risks that exist."

The report's findings cover incidents from April 2004 to March 2005, from the 1,370 passports lost annually in the US, for example, to drug-related arrests in the Far East. Inevitably, they also reflect the destination preferences of the British traveller. With 15,000 Brits visiting each year, Spain tops the tables in most categories, including the highest number of annual arrests, at 1,663. It also saw the most hospitalisations (1,137) and the greatest number of reported rapes (41).

"The figures show some interesting trends," says Mr Bailey. "Travellers from ethnic minorities, for example, are often vulnerable when visiting countries they have links with. Not because they're more likely to get into trouble, but because they're half as likely to take out travel insurance."

In fact, 35 per cent of those surveyed admitted to not always taking out appropriate insurance cover, a mistake that has proved costly. According to the report, treatment for a broken leg in some European destinations has cost travellers as much as £7,000, while repatriation by air ambulance from the US has set others back £35,000.

Some of the report's findings were more idiosyncratic. Did you know, for example, that a Vicks Inhaler is illegal in Japan? "You can be arrested for wearing camouflage fatigues in some parts of the Caribbean," adds Mr Bailey.

Earlier this year the FCO published the Consular Guide, a new set of guidelines spelling out precisely what Britain's embassies can (and, more importantly, can't) do for those in trouble abroad. While the FCO deals with more than 6,000 Britons detained overseas each year, it seems that, whatever the message from the Queen inside your passport suggests to the contrary, being British isn't the perk it once was.

"Under the Vienna Convention the local police are obliged to ask you if you want to contact the British Embassy," explains Mr Bailey. "However, there are still some misconceptions out there; about a third of people think we can get them out of prison simply because they are British."

What your consulate representative can do, however, is put you in touch with an English-speaking lawyer, arrange for the transfer of money from friends or family, or take up any claims of unfair treatment. "We also don't make judgements about charges," says Mr Bailey. "If you're being held for alleged stealing or alleged sex offences we won't make a distinction and the level of service you can expect will be the same."

And should you turn up at an embassy one morning without money or identification, officials can, explains Mr Bailey, help put you in touch with family and provide an emergency passport. "We're looking to help people help themselves," says Mr Bailey. "We won't just give money. We won't say here's £100 and off you go. Embassies are not ATM machines, although some people think they are."

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