Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Members of the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations, I'm very pleased to appear before the committee today to provide a briefing on consular services, with a particular focus on the People's Republic of China.
My name is Heather Jeffrey. I'm the assistant deputy minister of consular, security and emergency management at Global Affairs Canada.
This is my colleague, Brian Szwarc, the director general for consular operations.
I will begin my presentation this morning by giving you an overview of the consular services provided to Canadians. I will then summarize the consular relationship with China, as well as our cases and the consular trends in that country. I will conclude by telling you about some of our most high profile cases in China.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs is responsible for the provision of consular services to Canadians abroad. These services are delivered by Global Affairs Canada and are guided by the Canadian Consular Services Charter.
Canadian representatives provide consular services 24/7 through more than 260 points of service across 150 countries and through the Emergency Watch and Response Centre, in Ottawa.
In order to provide relevant information to Canadians during their travels abroad, Global Affairs Canada makes use of two tools. The department's travel advice and advisories provide information on safe travel to more than 200 destinations, and the registration of Canadians abroad service enables government officials to contact Canadians in emergency situations. The Canadian Consular Services Charter details the services that Canadian government officials can provide to Canadians abroad.
These services include, for example, helping in a medical emergency by providing a list of local doctors and hospital services, providing victims of crime with advice and contact information for local police and medical services, assisting in cases of missing persons or the abduction of a child to another country, and the replacement of passports. In cases of arrest or detention, authorities are obligated by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations to advise foreign nationals of their right of access to a consular representative. Once Canada is notified of the detention of a Canadian citizen, the first priority of consular officials is to seek immediate access to that person to determine their safety and well-being.
In such cases, consular officials would advocate for equal treatment in accordance with local laws, liaise with family and legal representatives, and provide detainees with information on the local judicial and prison systems. Our officials offer consular support to all Canadian citizens, regardless of whether they carry another citizenship. However, many foreign states, such as China, do not recognize dual citizenship and might refuse to allow consular access to individuals they consider to be citizens only of their own country. This is a situation that consular officials deal with regularly in the Chinese context.
In total, about 175,000 new cases have been opened throughout our consular network in 2019. The vast majority of cases are of a routine or administrative nature, such as passport services or proof of citizenship applications, and they are generally addressed quickly by our missions abroad.
However, some 6,700 cases are more complex. In general, these are cases where Canadians need help dealing with a difficult situation abroad, such as a death, an arrest or a detention, a crime, a medical problem or issues with child care. The United States, Mexico and China are the countries with the largest number of those complex consular cases.
It is important to note that protecting the personal information of our consular clients is paramount. Consular officials are obliged to work within the parameters set by the Privacy Act. For this reason, the government is often very limited in what details it can provide publicly regarding specific consular cases.
With this overview of consular services offered by the Government of Canada, I will now provide some details specific to our consular services in China. Let me begin by giving a brief update on Canada's response to the novel coronavirus.
The current outbreak is of deep concern to Canadians in China, as well as in Canada. Actions are being taken to assist the impacted Canadians in Wuhan. As Deputy Minister Morgan informed you last week, Canada has secured a charter flight to bring Canadians from Wuhan, China to Canada, and we are finalizing arrangements with Chinese authorities to allow this flight to depart as soon as possible.
Global Affairs Canada is working closely with the Public Health Agency of Canada to provide relevant and timely travel and health information to Canadians in relation to the outbreak. Our travel advice was updated on January 24 to advise Canadians to avoid all travel to the province of Hubei due to the imposition of heavy travel restrictions in order to limit the spread of the virus. On January 29, we further updated the advisory to recommend against non-essential travel to China as a whole due to the outbreak.
Overall, in 2019 alone, consular officials opened 375 new cases in greater China. These include cases of arrest and detention, medical assistance, assault, well-being and whereabouts. There are currently 123 Canadians in custody in greater China. This figure is inclusive of Canadians in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. I want to stress that the number of Canadians in custody in China has remained stable over the last year.
The provision of consular services to Canadians in China is governed by a bilateral agreement signed by Canada and China more than 20 years ago. This agreement, which is available publicly, details the consular obligations and entitlements of our two countries in order to facilitate the protection of the rights and interests of our citizens.
I will now summarize some of the most high profile cases concerning China, which I think are of special interest to the committee.
Given the public nature of this meeting, I am limited by the provisions of the Privacy Act when it comes to personal information I can share.
The Government of Canada is extremely concerned by the cases of Canadians arbitrarily detained or facing the death penalty in China. Canadian representatives at all levels have raised those concerns with their Chinese counterparts, and they will continue to do so.
Canada opposes the use of the death penalty in all cases everywhere. Aligned with this principle, the Government of Canada seeks clemency for all Canadians facing the death penalty. Canada has raised with China our firm position on the death penalty, and we have called on China to grant clemency to Canadians facing this sentence.
In the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the Government of Canada has been unwavering in its position and in calling for their immediate release and return to Canada. As you will no doubt be aware, Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were detained by Chinese authorities on December 10, 2018, accused of posing a threat to China's national security. They were formally arrested on May 6, 2019.
Officials at the Embassy of Canada to China have had regular consular access to Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor since their detention in December 2018, conducting consular visits on an approximately monthly basis. The latest consular visit to Mr. Spavor took place on January 13, and to Mr. Kovrig on January 14, led by Ambassador Barton. The Government of Canada has been very clear that these two Canadians have been unacceptably and arbitrarily detained. We will continue to call for their immediate release.
Mr. Robert Schellenberg was detained by Chinese authorities in 2014 and charged with drug smuggling. He was initially sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment, but at a December 2018 appeal hearing, a Chinese court ordered a retrial. The next month a judge overturned the initial verdict and issued a death sentence. Mr. Schellenberg appealed the death sentence, and a hearing took place in May 2019. The verdict is pending.
Canada has strongly condemned the sentence of death imposed on Mr. Schellenberg at his retrial, and we expressed our extreme concern that China chose to arbitrarily apply the death penalty in his case. We have called on China to grant clemency to Mr. Schellenberg.
The particular cases that I've highlighted today represent only a few cases of the Canadian citizens in custody in China. While privacy considerations limit me from providing any details on specific cases, I want to stress that Canadian officials, both here and in China, are actively engaged on all of these cases and will continue to raise concerns with Chinese authorities.
Thank you for the opportunity to present this consular overview to the committee. We look forward to your questions.