Consular work overseas and what it tells us about ourselves

Hat-tip to Lorna Lloyd of Keele University for drawing attention to some remarkable statistics of work done by British consuls overseas in various countries on a scale I wouldn't have thought possible:  full facts and figures, issued by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, here.

Several remarkable facts and figures jump out at you.  To quote the FCO website,

According to the most accurate figures available, the period April 2005 – March 2006 saw 1,368 Britons arrested in the USA; 955 hospitalised in Greece; 376 British citizens die in France and 6,078 lose their passports in Spain.

The figures are astonishing, and shaming.  Quite apart from the huge numbers of arrests, hospitalisations, etc., of British citizens overseas, there are some amazing differences between countries visited — e.g. 1,549 arrests in Spain in the last financial year, out of nearly 14 million British visitors (14 million!), or 0.0111 per cent, compared with just 108 arrests in France out of nearly 11 million British visitors in the same period (0.00098 per cent). The figure for US arrests is even more extraordinary: out of only just over 3 million visitors, 1,368 were arrested, a whopping 0.0456 per cent.  Moral:  don't make jokes about Dubbya or the "war on terror" while you wait in the queue for immigration at JFK.

Various explanations for the high number of Britons dying in Spain – 1,325 out of nearly 14 million – spring to mind, especially if you have ever watched the television programme about "Club 18-30" behaviour by Brits in Spanish sea-side resorts dedicated to oceanic quantities of strong booze, mountains of fish and chips and chicken tikka massala, and (apparently) lavish amounts of sex, all for youngish visitors from the UK. 

I'm bewildered, though, by the astronomical numbers of British people who lose their passports while abroad:  in the relevant year (FY 2005-06), lost British passports numbered 6,078 in Spain, 3,064 in the USA, 1,236 in Germany and 2,023 in Australia.  Surely these can't all have been sold to would-be illegal immigrants? 

How and why nearly a thousand Brits got themselves sent to hospital in Greece in a single year is also a bit of a mystery.  (This was long before the current plague of forest fires.)  Perhaps something nasty in the moussaka  ["layers of ground (minced) lamb or red meat, sliced eggplant and tomato, topped with a white sauce and baked", according to Wikipedia]?   Or might it be the retsina?  Best, perhaps, stick to fish and chips or chicken tikka massala washed down with Sainsburys Basic Sparkling Bottled Tap Water.

The FCO observes that –

…the Czech Republic features as one of the countries where most consular assistance is required with a disproportionate number of lost passports, arrests and hospitalisations. This is likely to be due to the massive influx of hen and stag parties to Prague.

India, Thailand and Australia also appear in the top ten countries where Britons required consular assistance – perhaps suggesting that although Brits are getting more adventurous with their travels, they are not doing enough preparation before they go. The high figures in India might well be a result of many British Asians visiting family members and foregoing usual travel preparations such as vaccinations or travel insurance.

So it seems that as a nation we fail dismally to make proper preparations for our innumerable visits to Abroad, and we behave abysmally when we get there.  Considering that we have such a long history of interaction with foreign parts, this seems rather sad.





6 Responses

  1. Peter Harvey says:

    It is true that many British holidaymakers behave disgracefully and embarrassingly in Spain, and that may well be why they lose so many passports. But the high number of deaths must surely be due to the large number of elderly people who have retired to the Spanish coasts and, quite naturally, die there.

    Brian writesThat's probably the explanation:  thanks, Peter.  I had assumed, but probably wrongly, that the FCO website figures related only to British "visitors" to Spain, not including Britons living there (or dying there after living there!). 

  2. Ronnie says:

    Perhaps the general ambiance of European travel today with its comprehensive insurance, almost guaranteed repatriation if the holiday company goes bust and the untrammelled euphoria of the tourist industry have led to an assumption that the Consular Service is part of the welfare state   (Who pays them anyway?)  Incidentally, isn't this one of the areas where the Press refers to UK citizens delayed by strike, escaping hotel fires or whatever as Britons, leaving it to their local papers to identify them more closely?

    Brian writes:  Ronnie, I think that's a very acute observation about consular services being regarded as part of the welfare state.  People who get into trouble abroad, much more often than not through their own folly, are routinely outraged when required to pay the cost of getting themselves repatriated (if necessary being made to call on relatives or friends at home to send them the money required) or of being issued with temporary travel documents valid only for the one-way trip back to the UK.  They are often under the impression that because they pay their taxes in Britain, they are entitled to be subsidised by other British taxpayers when something nasty happens to them, just because they are abroad.  Many British consular officers do a literally thankless job!  (In rather the same way, Brits abroad who are invited to a drinks party or a meal at the British ambassador's official residence surprisingly often think themselves entitled to pocket a silver ashtray or a small but potentially valuable ornament from the mantelpiece, arguing, when detected and politely invited to give the stolen booty back, that they have paid their taxes and it's public property, isn't it?  (Answer: often No, it's just as likely to be the private property of the unfortunate host, who — despite having the glamorous title of 'ambassador' — may well earn a fraction of the salary of his or her thieving guest.)   It's curious that people on overseas visits, like the forces of an Occupying Power, often do things that they wouldn't dream of doing at home.    

  3. Martin says:


    Very interesting post.

    I recall being disgusted by the treatment meted out to consular staff in Houston by British 'survivors' of Hurricane Katrina – if one elects to holiday in a hurricane zone at the height of the hurricane season, one should at least plan for the off-chance of getting caught in a hurricane.

  4. Phil says:

    On the Greek front, I suspect you’re right to suspect the moussaka – I’ve never actually been hospitalised after eating aubergines, but it’s been close.

    I wish I’d read about the reassuringly low arrest rate in France before our recent trip there. The relatively high figure for the US comes as no surprise. If there’s one thing likely to incur the displeasure of any figure in authority, it’s disputing that authority – and the US is a country where authority-figures expect a great deal of respect.

  5. Michael says:

    There was a  big outbreak of food poisoning recently at a resort hotel in Dominica. Many British tourists were affected. The FO sent out teams of consular officials to help these tourists e.g. inform relatives at home, book flights home etc. I think much of this work should have been done by the tour operators and hotel staff in the form of customer service, but the FO is so terrified of the tabloids that it feels it has to rush to the rescue even in the case of food poisoning oin holiday which although very unpleasant is not on the same level as a tidal wave or a hurricane.

    Brian writes:  I rather agree, Michael.  I don't really see why this should have been a charge on public funds — i.e. the funds paid by people many of whom wouldn't be able to afford a holiday in Dominica in the first place.  I wonder whether the beneficiaries were suitably appreciative or whether they grumbled about not getting even more support! But the FCO isn't alone in acting largely out of a terror of the tabloids.  It will be interesting to see whether our new Scottish granite prime minister is made of sterner stuff than his timorous predecessor.

  6. Carl Lundquist/LA says:

    >>The figure for US arrests is even more extraordinary: out of only just over 3 million visitors, 1,368 were arrested, a whopping 0.0456 per cent.  Moral:  don’t make jokes about Dubbya or the "war on terror" while you wait in the queue for immigration at JFK. <<

    Now, now Brian.   That would just identify the joker as a Democrat, and we do not arrest Democrats.   At least not many Democrats.  That will have to wait until they have been in the White House for a while.

    I suspect the reason Brits check in to our nicks with such distressing frequency, is the same reason that they visit Spanish clinks so often.  All that sun beating down on their northern European skulls convinces them that they can drink Florida dry and the mai tais do the rest.   <g>

    Besides if you think the Guardia Civil is tough, wait till you see those Disney World goons in action.