Diplomacy in the time of COVID-19: Australia shores up commitment to its expats and to Hong Kong

As the Consul-General of Australia awaits official accreditation to work in Hong Kong, Deputy CG Mr Ryan Neelam has taken over CG duties with confidence in these unprecedented times.

Photo: Deputy Consul-General Mr Ryan Neelam, courtesy of the Consulate General of Australia to Hong Kong and Macao.

At the behest of mainland Chinese authorities, Hong Kong officials have yet to approve the visa of newly appointed Australian Consul-General to Hong Kong and Macao, Ms Elizabeth Ward. 

Mr Ryan Neelam, Deputy Consul-General of Australia in Hong Kong, has been serving as the acting Consul-General since 25 February, when Ms Michaela Browning, the previous Consul-General, returned to Australia.

If Mr Neelam feels any apprehension about stepping into his new role as the acting Consul-General, he certainly didn’t let on in his interview with Harbour Times

“All of our sections, covering services for Australians, immigration, border protection, trade and policing are still operating,” said Mr Neelam.

When asked if the Australian Consulate in Hong Kong received any new instructions from their home office, Mr Neelam replied, “Assisting Australians overseas has always been our top priority, so in that respect, there is no change.”

Australia was quick to announce its commitment to keeping its trade partnership open with Hong Kong, especially concerning the large amount of fresh produce that Australia imports into Hong Kong each year.

On 8 April, the Australian government launched the International Freight Assistance Mechanism (IAFM).

The IAFM was created “in response to freight transport challenges caused by the outbreak of COVID-19,” and is worth AUD $110 million (HK$522 million).

The IAFM initiative “will enable Australian agriculture and seafood exporters to reach key overseas markets by coordinating freight flights to destinations such as Hong Kong.”

“Our trading relationship with Hong Kong is an extremely important one. Australia is one of the largest suppliers of food and beverage products to Hong Kong and we want to support our producers and the people of Hong Kong who have come to enjoy and expect access to quality fresh Australian produce,” said Shannon Powell, Senior Trade and Investment Commissioner and Deputy Consul General (Commercial).

The Australian Consulate in Hong Kong has been aggressive in getting information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic out onto their social media channels, and through “regular contact with the Support Australia Group.”

Mr Neelam describes the ‘Support Australia Group’ as “a network of Australia-related professional, social and state government organisations in Hong Kong, as well as with the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Macao.”

Mr Neelam also highly stressed the importance of registering with smartraveller.gov.au for those Australians who are abroad. 

Smartraveller.gov.au is a website maintained by the Australian government that ensures that “they [Australians abroad] receive email or, in some cases, SMS alerts about changes to circumstances in the locations to which they subscribe.”

Mr Neelam continued, “The Smartraveller advice for each country or region is under continuous review and in the current circumstances is also updated regularly to alert Australians to local conditions, as well as options for travel or transit to return to Australia.”

Deputy CG Mr Ryan Neelam courtesy of the Consulate General of Australia to Hong Kong.

What functions have you stopped or slowed in your office on the consular, trade, immigration or other fronts?

We have divided our team in two to better implement social-distancing precautions in the Consulate office. We’re calling them our Green and Gold Teams, with weeks alternating between office-based and work from home operations. 

All of our sections, covering services for Australians, immigration, border protection, trade and policing are still operating. In particular, our service for Australians who need urgent consular assistance continues. We are still processing passports, including emergency passports where required. 

We have changed our notarial services to focus on only genuinely urgent or compelling needs. This frees our consular staff to focus more on responding to Australians who need urgent consular assistance. Most notarial services can still be performed by local notaries public or other legal professionals, so the disruption to our clients can be limited.

Since 20 March, with only some exceptions, only Australians citizens, residents and immediate family members can travel to Australia, so our immigration section has moved quickly to prioritise visa services that meet these measures, as well as on citizenship applications for newborn Australians overseas.

On the trade front, our Austrade team is focusing on supply chains, to ensure that Australian products can still make it to important markets like Hong Kong and Macao, which rely on our produce exports.

What kind of outreach measures has the office carried out to make services accessible to your nationals? Were any additional resources created to accommodate for the virus situation? What activities have increased?

We’ve not needed to create or rely on any additional resources as we have always ensured that we have good networks in place. 

What we have done is stepped up our communication with Australians in Hong Kong and Macao through social media and also through our local networks. We are in regular contact with the Support Australia Group – a network of Australia-related professional, social and state government organisations in Hong Kong, as well as with The Australian Chamber of Commerce in Macau. 

This enables us to extend our reach to the Australian community with important information updates. 

Importantly, it also allows us to hear from the community about their concerns and the impact on individuals and on families and students resident here, as well as on Australian businesses which operate here.

Has your home office asked you to do anything differently?

Assisting Australians overseas has always been our top priority, so in that respect, there is no change. 

However, the nature of our reporting activities to Canberra is obviously focusing more specifically on COVID-19 related matters. 

While our Smartraveller advice generally focuses on important destination-related issues, we have, where possible, started to include more information on travel options for citizens wishing to return to Australia.

Do you find that more of your nationals are registering with your office than previously? Were numbers up because of the protests? Did they spike again as the coronavirus pandemic started to spread?

We don’t have a just-in-case registration system for Australians. Our smartraveller.gov.au service encourages Australians to subscribe to travel advice updates. 

This ensures that they receive email or, in some cases, SMS alerts about changes to circumstances in the locations to which they subscribe. 

This system was relaunched late last year so it’s difficult to make a reasonable comparison between subscription numbers then and now, but clearly people are taking advantage of the service. 

The Smartraveller advice for each country or region is under continuous review and in the current circumstances is also updated regularly to alert Australians to local conditions, as well as options for travel or transit to return to Australia.

Printer: R&R Publishing Limited, Suite 705, 7F, Cheong K. Building, 84-86 Des Voeux Road, Central, Hong Kong 

Avatar

Daniel Murphy

Daniel is a freelance writer, having covered the economy and stock market for the past two years. He graduated from Bloomfield College in New Jersey with a BA in Creative Art and Technology with a concentration in Music Technology. Daniel grew up in the Hudson Valley region of New York, and now lives on Staten Island.
Avatar
Avatar the author

Daniel is a freelance writer, having covered the economy and stock market for the past two years. He graduated from Bloomfield College in New Jersey with a BA in Creative Art and Technology with a concentration in Music Technology. Daniel grew up in the Hudson Valley region of New York, and now lives on Staten Island.

1 Readers Commented

Join discussion