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Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 03:46 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Evacuations from Syria


Alex Oliver


26 July 2012 11:18

In response to my post on UK's apparent readiness for a civilian evacuation from Syria, reader Jonathan Darby posted the following. My comments follow:

Whilst I don't like to get in the way of a good story, did you by any chance check the MoD official blog? There you might have read this response:

Response Force Task Group
The Daily Telegraph carried an article on Saturday about the routine autumn deployment of the Royal Navy's Response Force Task Group. The report suggested that one potential role of the Task Group was an evacuation of British nationals from Syria and surrounding nations. In fact, no evacuation has been planned or ordered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which has been advising against all travel to Syria since April 2011.

The Foreign Office has urged British nationals in Syria to leave by commercial means while these are still available. The Government has repeatedly made clear, using a wide variety of communications, that those who choose to remain in Syria, or visit against our clear and unambiguous advice should be aware that we are unable to provide normal Consular services.

So, far from a move to evacuate British nationals from the region, the deployment of the Response Force Task Group (RFTG) is part of a regular training cycle and longstanding plans to conduct a series of exercises with allies in the Mediterranean during October and November this year. The RFTG was established by the Strategic Defence and Security Review as a high readiness, multi-faceted maritime capability to respond to crisis events around the world.

While it is of course the case that contingency planning takes place across a range of global scenarios, there is no change to the Task Group's programme and it is not expected to deploy any earlier than originally planned.

Are you saying that you'd like the Australian Government to use our scarce taxes to pay to evacuate people who have ignored all the warnings and stayed in a country that has been in de facto civil war for months?

In response to Jonathan's last question: no. We have argued consistently on The Interpreter and in our other publications that the Australian Government must act to arrest the increasingly unrealistic expectations Australian travelers have of the consular service they can demand when they encounter trouble overseas. One journalist described it to us as the 'Why isn't The Government Saving Me' culture. In this post last year, I argued that this culture has been fanned, in part, by the opportunism of our elected representatives in a consular 'point-scoring' exercise — politicians are falling over themselves to offer ever more attention and service in cases that are sometimes of dubious merit.

My thanks to Jonathan for the pointer to the MoD statement, which should have been included in my piece. The MoD response to the Tele's story is unsurprising. I emphasised in the opening paragraph of my post that the UK's naval plans in the Eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Syria were an 'exercise that has evidently been planned for some time and isn't a direct response to events in Syria, but according to the UK Telegraph, the flotilla could be used to evacuate British citizens from the Middle East if needed.'

The FCO's 'do not travel' advice to Syria is as unequivocal as Australia's. Neither they nor the MoD would wish to engender high expectations among Britons in Syria that they will be rescued by their government no matter how long they tarry in Syria against official advice.

My point, however, is that there will always be a contingent (sometimes substantial) of risk-taking travelers wilfully ignoring travel advice in the expectation that their government will save them. The 500 Britons stranded in Libya in February last year are ample evidence of that, as were the Australians needing rescue from Cairo.

Whatever happens in Syria, and whatever the official travel advice from the Australian Government, there will be Australians in Syria if full-scale civil war erupts. We are not going to leave them there. Cleverly, the UK appears to have turned a 'routine exercise' into well-positioned evacuation capability. We know this is probable because the FCO has recently published its plans on crisis-preparedness. DFAT hasn't.