Say the word “diplomat” and most people automatically think of the 175 ambassadors — with their impressive pedigrees, powerful connections and enviable parking privileges — who represent their countries at physical embassies in the nation’s capital.
Yet when foreign nationals find themselves in a pickle, they usually turn to consular officers — not ambassadors — for assistance. This can range from replacing a lost or stolen passport to shipping the body of a deceased loved one back home for burial.
“We’re a bit neglected,” laments Stan Myck, Luxembourg’s consul in Washington. “It’s like we are in the third or fourth level of diplomatic work, and we only come up when there’s a crisis, for example with COVID-19, when our nationals were locked down in hotels or stuck on cruise ships, and all of a sudden everyone wanted to go home at the same time.”
Until a few months ago, Myck headed the Consular Corps of Washington D.C., which counts about 80 consulates among its members, even though all of Washington’s embassies may theoretically belong.
Myck, 63, said that shortly after his arrival in Washington, the Consular Corps elected him to its 10-member board representing European countries. Other board members represent various other regions such as Asia, Africa and Latin America, while still others represent corporate interests such as hotels.
“Consular and political work is extremely important,” said Myck. “This involves dealing with people who need your help — whether it’s a new passport or a visa — or maybe your nationals are in trouble, sick or detained somewhere. They may have lost their documents and it’s important to help them get money or find a flight home.”
In September, after serving three years as the organization’s president, Myck was replaced by Anna Law, New Zealand’s consul-general here.
“The Consular Corps is an established collegial network of consular officials, practitioners and supporters of our profession, whether you’re new to the consular field or Washington, or an experienced consular practitioner able to share your expertise with others,” Law told us. “And this year absolutely demonstrated that it’s worth having that established network.”
In fact, until COVID-19 hit, the Consular Corps was a pretty active bunch. Every May, it holds a black-tie ball; the 2019 extravaganza took place at the Finnish Embassy, attracting 110 guests. The year before that, it was hosted at the residence of the Swiss ambassador.
Recent events featured a talk on the plight of cross-border children and vulnerable adults by Dr. Felicity Northcott, an international child welfare expert; a lecture on networking and etiquette by Patrick Jephson, former private secretary of Princess Diana; and a how-to on the handling of death penalty cases by Mark Maher of the British charity Reprieve.
One of the organization’s last major in-person events was its fall luncheon at the International Student House. That gathering featured Ambassador Stephen Akard, the State Department’s newly appointed director of the Office of Foreign Missions.
But 2020, of course, changed everything.
Embassies closed their doors in mid-March, with only essential employees showing up for work to process passports and visas. Much of the work is being done online, and some D.C. embassies have yet to reopen to the public.
“We had hundreds of inquiries from New Zealanders wanting to get back home. We’ve also facilitated the repatriation of lots of cruise-ship passengers who were stranded throughout the Caribbean, as well as crew members,” Law said. “We also had detainees who were required to be deported back to their countries of origin at the end of their sentence. These complexities were not necessarily something we immediately thought of, beyond our stranded travelers.”
There’s also the complexity of repatriating a deceased citizen who has died of COVID-19 when the airlines aren’t flying.
“This is where our relationships with airlines are really important,” she said. “What exactly are the options for your nationals to return back home? All of those present logistical challenges.”
Membership in the Consular Corps offers top-notch programs, access to the organization’s online library of information and directories, and superior training events to help consuls effectively execute their duties in the United States. Its website says members “enjoy access to both high-level federal and local government officials, and to other influential or advantageous Washingtonians.”
“We’ve been having meetings via Zoom,” he said. “In the earlier days of covid, it was very helpful to share information as other countries were developing strategies on how best to handle the pandemic, and some of this information wasn’t available to all of us.”
Added Luxembourg’s Myck: “During the lockdown we had a WhatsApp group and we were exchanging news on a daily basis about available flights to Europe. We are also covering Mexico and Canada from D.C., so if we had citizens in these countries and our Dutch or Belgian colleagues had flights, we contacted them to take our citizens back home. This cooperation was fantastic.”
Law is understandably proud of how her remote twin-island nation of 5 million has defeated covid. As of press time, New Zealand had 2,069 confirmed infections, and just 25 deaths.
“New Zealand has taken a science- and medical-based response centered on people, and on minimizing the impact of COVID-19 on the population,” she said. “One of the key factors of our response has been very clear communications from our prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, working alongside our director-general of health and the country’s leading healthcare professionals. We jumped at the first sign of trouble, so we were very lucky. We treated this as a worst-case scenario rather than waiting for it to become a worst-case scenario.”
Looking to the future, Law said she hopes to boost membership in the Consular Corps.
“All the precautions and regulations on gathering have put a damper on our ability to network in person, but as soon as conditions allow, we really looking forward to resuming our series of networking events,” she said. “Obviously, we don’t know when that will be, but were all very interested in resuming a normal life again.”