Kate Simon: Trouble abroad? Don't rely on the man from the FO

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The Independent Travel

Surfing the nether regions of the satellite channels last week, I discovered the ghoulishly fascinating programme My Holiday Hostage Hell.

The episode I caught told the harrowing tale of the kidnap of Holly Sheldon and her mother, Jenny, by a gang of armed robbers in La Paz, Bolivia.

The horrifying course of events – in which the women were duped into taking what they thought was a cheap taxi, only to end up bound and gagged on the floor of a house in a shanty town while their abductors siphoned off money from their bank accounts – sadly made for a timely tale in the same week that Rachel and Paul Chandler were released by their Somali captives and the tragic news hit of the murder of Anni Dewani while on honeymoon in South Africa.

But as well as serving as a grim reminder that travel can, very occasionally, be a dangerous business, it raised another question. Just who can you turn to for help if you've been the victim of a crime while travelling abroad?

Most people's first thought would be the local British Embassy. Indeed, that was just who the Sheldons got in touch with once they'd managed to reach the safety of a local police station on the Friday night that they were released by their captors. Yet, they claim they received short shrift. The duty officer at the British Embassy in La Paz berated them over the phone for inviting trouble before telling them that the office was closed for the weekend.

Unfortunately, it's not the first time I've heard such criticism of the service; a member of my own family experienced similar problems while trying to get consular staff to help at two in the afternoon during a crisis in Venezuela some years ago. But while the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which runs the Consular Service, won't comment on individual cases, it does acknowledge that there have been problems in how the service has been delivered and insists it is learning from these mistakes.

A spokesperson told me: "We have recently changed the way we handle calls when a local Embassy is closed, so that they are all routed to our 24/7 Global Response Centre in London and we can ensure that there is always a trained consular officer available to provide assistance, and, if necessary, alert the Embassy consular team locally to assist in person. We take all feedback really seriously and are constantly seeking to improve our service." More than 20,000 people were helped in 2009-2010 for various issues – from child abductions to general assaults.

So, what kind of help should you be able to expect from the local Embassy if you're the victim of a crime? The Consular Service confirms it will help to contact relatives and friends, get information on how money can be safely transferred, and provide contacts for local lawyers, interpreters and doctors as appropriate.

But anyone assuming that the local Embassy is a haven where you can get hold of some cash and a bed for the night should think again. The service has the power to provide up to £100 – but only in exchange for a sterling cheque supported by a valid bank card and for a fee. Sometimes, it can even loan money for a fare home, so long as you hand over your passport in exchange for a temporary one and sign an agreement that you'll pay the money back.

So, best not to get into trouble in the first place. Indeed, that is the Foreign Office mantra, and it goes to great lengths to supply information that encourages travellers to arm themselves with knowledge of their destination before they leave home shores. Check out the Know Before You Go and Travel Advice pages on its website – fco.gov.uk. You might just pick up some advice that could stop you being in the wrong place at the wrong time.


Congratulations to Adrian Phillips whose article on Lake Tisza in Hungary, which appeared in these pages in May, won best short feature at the British Guild of Travel Writers Awards. The judges said: "This piece brings to life the bird-rich [shores] of Hungary's Lake Tisza, a little known place where, in the author's words, nature quenches its thirst and shakes the dust from its features." You can read his evocative story at:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/ europe/if-the-nightingales-would-just-pipe-down-1980364.html