Consular issues don’t recognise borders so consuls need to work together to help address increasingly complex challenges, the new President of the Consular Corps of London Joana Gaspar told Elizabeth Stewart
“For the Portuguese, it’s in our genes to travel,” smiles Joana Gaspar, Portuguese Consul General and the newly-elected President of the Consular Corps of London, the capital’s oldest diplomatic association, which this year celebrates its 115th anniversary.
Joana, an experienced diplomat with a career spanning more than 20 years, has all the right credentials to take over the presidency. Prior to this post, she worked in the Consular Department at the Portuguese Foreign Ministry as well as serving in the cabinet of the Secretary of State for Portuguese Communities Abroad. It’s a role the Foreign Ministry takes very seriously.
“We have a specific secretary of state because we have such a big diaspora – there are roughly five million Portuguese living abroad. So Portugal has a large consular network for a small country because there is a Portuguese presence almost everywhere.”
Years of coordinating Portugal’s consular assistance from Lisbon have given Joana a pretty good global picture of common consular issues.
Doing more with less
“The first challenge that crops up time and again is limited resources,” says Joana. “And I am sure all my consular colleagues will agree. More and more of our citizens live abroad so our network is growing, the volume of our work is increasing, but our resources are not. So we have to be smart about how we work.”
And no matter where in the world the consular post, the problems are usually the same, says Joana. “Social issues – homelessness, detainees, mental health, international families, these are always the most difficult problems to solve. People always assume it’s the paperwork that’s the problem – the visas and passports – but you can always find ways to manage admin.”
London is Joana’s first consular post – and looking after a community of half a million Portuguese nationals, it is one of the most challenging. “I don’t think I am alone in this. There are so many countries represented here plus you have consuls resident in London who are also responsible for consular matters in a number of other countries,” says Joana.
In a city as multicultural as London, consuls have to manage the complex consular cases involving dual nationals, multinational families and on top of that, issue visas to hundreds of third country nationals (and be able to recognise their passports!)
This is why the Consular Corps of London is such a valuable forum, she adds. “Sharing experiences, procedures, contacts – that’s the top advantage of the Consular Corps. You may be having difficulties solving a problem but there is likely to be someone who dealt with a similar issue who can advise you on who to call.
“And of course we help each other with the usual visa problems; you have a hotline to your consular colleague on the other side because there is this unwritten understanding that one day they might need help from you! It’s all about reciprocity.”
Another important function of the Consular Corps is connecting its members to key government officials. Because of the number of countries represented, the association wields considerable leverage when it comes to attracting high-profile speakers from the Home Office or government agencies that consuls, as individuals, may struggle to access.
“And once we have had a chance to listen to these individuals, we can ask questions and report back to our capitals, which is always very useful,” she smiles.
Being a well-connected Consul General with a large community in the UK, Joana has an enviable contacts book to mine for potential speakers. “But I am not only going to cover topics that are of interest to me or my European colleagues,” she hastens to add. “I want a broader perspective on issues that interest other countries. So a big part of my mission as President is to increase the diversity of the Consular Corps and perhaps include topics that would be of interest to Latin America or Asia or Africa or have seminars with a regional focus to encourage them to participate.”
And the wider the membership, the more clout the CCL will have when interceding on behalf of CCL members with the UK authorities, she adds. “If there is an issue that affects all of us – for instance, the difficulties we experience when trying to contact the Home Office – our views will be taken more seriously if the CCL can claim to represent the views of more than 100 countries.”
So to broaden the CCL’s reach, the first step Joana took as President was to create an executive committee representing a wide range of regions so that their input will be reflected in the programme of events.
To be more inclusive, Joana also aims to diversify the types of meeting so that more people can attend. “The monthly lunches can be quite pricey for our colleagues who have very restricted expense accounts,” she points out. “So we will look at other types of gatherings where members may not have to pay, such as meetings held at embassies, or field trips to places such as the Passport Office or immigration detention centres.”
The topics for discussion will include issues that are universal to every region or every size of community, adds Joana. “For instance, crisis management – how do we assist our community in the event of an emergency such as a terrorist attack? We need to rehearse our crisis plans and we need to understand how Britain’s emergency response operates. It’s something we all pray never happens, but we have to prepare for it.”
Also topical right now is Brexit. “This interests everybody, not just Europeans, because it affects dual nationals and that includes many nationalities,” Joana points out. “We also need to think about Brexit in a broader perspective – what sort of immigration system will be introduced after Brexit and how will this affect Europeans and other foreign nationals and the laws that are already in place?”
Looking at consular tech and new ways of connecting with communities is another area consuls need to explore more, she adds. “So we can look at developments in social media and other technologies that can help us all work smarter.”
For consuls, understanding the British social welfare system is critical since so much of a consul’s time is consumed by dealing with the gamut of social issues, from prisoners to child abduction or homelessness, she continues.
“The UK has a great welfare system, but it is under strain so the British government is starting to restrict the access foreign nationals will have to welfare services and that will undoubtedly have an impact on the number of social cases we see and deal with.”
So reaching out to those NGOs and welfare charities will also be important in assisting consuls in the work they do. In return, the Consular Corps will continue its charitable activities by raising funds at its social events to support the vital work of these organisations.
“So we will continue our social events – the visits to Downing Street and Parliament, plus our summer and winter parties are always very popular. It’s always easier to work with someone once you have got to know them socially.”
It’s an ambitious mission, but Joana is confident she and her committee will be able to execute it. “I am lucky to have a great foundation created by my predecessors,” says Joana. “It means I can focus on reaching out to make the Consular Corps of London even more diverse, inclusive and relevant.”