Connecting consuls

The new President of the Consular Corps of London tells the Embassy editor about putting his stamp on London’s oldest diplomatic association

At 32, he was perhaps a late entry for a diplomatic career, but as an avid stamp collector, you could say Christiaan Sys, vice consul at the Embassy of Belgium, was destined to be a consul.

The newly-elected President of the 113-year-old Consular Corps of London (CCL) laughs at the notion, before adding: “There’s a lot more to the job than just stamping visa applications!”

For one thing, globalisation has meant many more citizens travel, work and study abroad increasing the burden of consular work.

Increasing workload
“On top of the increasing workload are the increasing expectations,” he sighs. “Sometimes we have to tell people that we are not a bank or a travel agent!”

Working in London poses a particular challenge for the consuls, Sys points out. “I was surprised at how multicultural London is.”

This usually translates into more complex case work with mixed marriages, dual nationality, long legalisation chains etc. Then there are also the more special cases involving child abductions, forced and/or sham marriages and the issue of modern slavery.

Not to mention the many visa applications from third country nationals. And while processing these and inspecting a dizzying array of travel documents, it’s the job of the consul to sift out individuals who could pose a risk to their countries, while easing a path for all those students, investors and tourists that are so vital to a country’s economy.

“There are more and more rules that change frequently and we have to keep on top of them,” says Sys. “In order to provide assistance to their nationals, consuls need to have a good grasp of the systems of their own country and that of the host country – whether it’s the judicial system, social welfare or the ever-changing immigration rules.”

Technical assistance
With the increasingly technical nature of consular work, an organisation such as the CCL can prove invaluable. “We provide a good educational platform. When you arrive in a post you have to learn all these technical issues so it’s very useful because we provide speakers that are not only politicians but also technical and senior civil servants who can give guidance on the implementation of policy.”

A graduate of Leicester University, Sys is no stranger to these shores. His knowledge of the British political system, having worked in the House of Commons as well as Whitehall, will prove useful when securing speakers of the high calibre that the CCL members have come to expect.

Past speakers have included the most senior directors general at the Home Office dealing with immigration and border policy; officials from the National Crime Agency; senior civil servants from the consular directorate at the Foreign Office, top politicians such as the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chair of the Home Affairs Committee Keith Vaz and Lord Ashdown, as well as key contacts at charities such as Refugee Action, who provide valuable assistance in consular cases.

Consuls also enjoyed a variety of field trips, seminars and conferences provided by the sponsors of the CCL – VFS Global (a leading visa outsourcing company), Rowland Brothers International (who assist consuls in repatriation cases) and Embassy magazine, which co-hosts the annual Consular Conference.

All work and no play makes consuls dull, so fortunately the CCL sponsors, including drinks supplied by Chacalli De Decker, enabling the association to host social events for informal networking, including a summer party and the Code Red Christmas charity dinner which raised more than £1000 for the DEC’s Ebola appeal.

These activities help consuls build an excellent network of contacts, which may come in handy in a crisis. “If you need help or guidance at short notice, you have a nice address book of contacts to refer to,” says Sys.

Getting things right, especially in the digital age, is critical. “Consular work is the face of the foreign ministry. Get things badly wrong during a consular crisis or an assistance case will make headline news back home.”

Going digital
Keeping the CCL relevant to its members is top of Sys’s priorities and one of the first actions he took as President was to conduct a survey of the membership.

Based on the survey results, the popular programme of lunch lectures will continue, but offer better value for money. There are also seminars and field trips in the pipeline as well as social events at popular London cultural sites.

Looking to the future, Sys is keen to embrace digital tools. So the CCL now uses Eventbrite for its bookings, which has proved extremely popular. The website is getting a much-needed overhaul and the CCL is now on Twitter (follow them at @ConsCorpsLondon). A seminar is planned with the London Academy of Diplomacy to explore the application of social media to consular and diplomatic work.

Yet as the CCL makes its first forays into the digital world, Sys is very mindful that consular work is primarily about people. “We are the human side of diplomacy. On those occasions where you’ve helped one of your citizens in a jam, it is very satisfying. ”

To find out more about the Consular Corps of London email

Christiaan Sys

The Consular Corps Committee: Front (from left): Senen Mangalile,
Sarah Hayes Mooney, Bernard Silver, Vanderpoole Banahene, Donyelle Ward.
Back (from left) Elizabeth Stewart, Christiaan Sys (President),
Barry James and Hayk Khemchyan

Consular Conga at the Code Red party

With HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Nick Hardwick