As Australian PM Kevin Rudd limps back to his desk to issue soundbites over China’s detention of Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu, Crikey thought it pertinent to cast an eye over other, less prominent, Australians languishing in overseas gulags.

Rudd’s bluster this morning on Hu, perhaps an attempt to salvage his Sino cred following last week’s Time ‘Mr World’ puff piece, is yet to provoke the public’s usual outrage over the plight of detained Aussies. Still, the PM’s declaration that the government was treating Hu like any other overseas Australian were less than convincing.

Rudd is trying to give the illusion of frenzied action, while remaining sensitive to our slavish reliance on Beijing. But what’s the situation for Aussies on the outside of the billion dollar iron-ore trade?

This story in today’s Age looks at the 90 locals charged by the United Arab Emirates, with only a cursory reference to the reams of other Aussies detained in the US, Europe and our number one recreational drugs destination, South East Asia.

When contacted by Crikey, a DFAT spokesperson said 420 Australians were currently at the mercy of overseas legal systems. But the department was vague on the specifics:

“We don’t keep figures as to how many Australians are incarcerated overseas; what we do track is how many Australians are either in our ‘arrest’ or ‘prisoner’ category — and this figure is not split into either category. Australians who are ‘arrested’ or classified as ‘prisoners’ number 420”, the department said.

According to DFAT, ‘Arrest’ means someone who is being detained or charged or someone who is on bail. ‘Prisoner’ is someone who has been convicted and who DFAT is still providing consular assistance to.

At the height of the David Hicks saga in 2007, then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer was forced to issue a country-by-country prisoner breakdown after an ALP Question on Notice, revealing the United States as the most popular home away from home for local miscreants.

At the time, the department revealed that 176 Australians were serving jail time overseas, a figure that tallies with this 2005 assessment.

In 2007, 29 were in the US, 25 in New Zealand, 14 in Thailand, 12 in Vietnam, eight in Britain and Hong Kong, seven in Greece and six in China and Cambodia. A further 267 were facing charges with 118 held in custody.

One thing is clear — the vast majority of Australian citizens detained abroad aren’t engaged in alleged high-level iron-ore “espionage”, but are usually drug runners or misguided tourists snared, like this Wingham man, in a border passport stuff-up. The vast majority will never benefit from Rudd’s silver-tongued Mandarin diplomacy, as the Smart Traveller website makes clear.

With a US judge about to issue a ruling on another case of “espionage” over a former Boeing engineer accused of leaking to the Chinese, Hu’s case will remain firmly anchored in the high-stakes world of international intrigue, a vastly different scenario to that of the now-forgotten beer-mat-mum.