Thank you very much.
First of all, I'd like to thank you for inviting us here today to talk about the work of assisting Canadians abroad.
I'd like to begin by introducing my colleagues. Mr. Mark Gwozdecky is the assistant deputy minister for international security and political affairs, and he is responsible for issues concerning terrorist hostage-taking. Ms. Lisa Helfand is director general for consular operations. Mark Berman is our director general for consular policy.
As we start our discussion on how we serve Canadians abroad, it is helpful to put today's travel into context. As travel has become easier and more affordable, and communication virtually instantaneous, we see Canadians travelling more and visiting or living in more remote places. At the same time, the nature, frequency, and location of security threats and weather-related events have had an impact on our work. As we have seen recently in the Caribbean, abnormal weather events are increasing in regularity and severity. All of these factors have led to an increase in the number and complexity of consular cases abroad.
At the same time, as the security threat evolves and we face increasing numbers of significant weather events, Canadians are travelling, working, studying, retiring, and simply living abroad in ever greater numbers. An estimated 2.8 million Canadians currently live outside Canada, and Canadians made 54 million trips abroad in 2015, an increase of approximately 30% from 10 years ago.
The preferred destinations for Canadian travellers are also diversifying. In 2016, while we continued to see the United States as the favourite international destination for Canadians, we saw a drop of almost 8% in Canadians travelling to the U.S., while Canadians made even more trips to everywhere else. In fact, travel to places besides the U.S. saw an increase of 3.7%, or approximately 12 million trips, continuing the trend of strong growth in overseas travel since 2014.
We expect that Canada's efforts to strengthen ties with the world through study and international business linkages, for example, will mean an increase in the demand for consular services.
Serving Canadians abroad is a major function of Global Affairs Canada. At our 260 points of service around the world, there are 850 officials either wholly or partially responsible for providing consular service to Canadians. In addition to these officials, Canada's ambassadors and high commissioners bear ultimate responsibility for consular delivery in their missions. They are briefed on specific consular cases and broader obstacles and are called upon to become directly involved in helping to resolve particularly difficult challenges.
Their work is supplemented by the work of honorary consuls who have proven themselves invaluable time and again in helping Canadians in need. Finally, in extreme emergencies we can rely on a network of volunteer Canadian wardens who are ready to assist Canadians and extend the reach of the mission.
Officials based in consular missions are most directly involved in delivering our consular mandate. Consular officers overseas are there to help, whether it's renewing a passport, providing contacts for local medical resources to those in need, or sharing information on local legal systems to parents of abducted children. It involves visiting Canadians detained abroad, assisting with the identification and repatriation of deceased Canadians, and seeking clemency for the death penalty. The type and extent of their assistance is adapted to the legal and bureaucratic framework in the country in which they operate.
In situations where Canadians are unable to rely on services available in the local environment, we develop tools and seek options elsewhere. One example of this work is the child well-being assessment tool, which was developed to allow us to gather information in situations where a child's welfare is at risk.
Consular officers opened over 265,000 new consular cases in 2016 alone. Of these cases, the overwhelming majority, 97%, were of a routine or administrative nature and were resolved quickly and directly at the diplomatic mission. When cases are complex, however, communications between missions and headquarters becomes paramount, and assistance may be required for years, as in the case of Canadians detained abroad or in cases of international parental child abduction.
Canada's missions are supported by a team of 120 staff at headquarters, including case management officers, policy officers, and emergency management experts.
With increased travel comes heightened risk to Canadians in regard to security threats and terrorism. New security threats from Daesh and other terrorist and criminal entities in all regions of the world have had an impact on Canadians in Europe, Asia, Africa, and in the Middle East, from Cancun, to the Philippines, to Paris, to Barcelona. The tragic events earlier this week in Las Vegas have again shown that Canadians can be at risk from other forms of violence, even closer to home.
Ensuring our missions maintain effective relationships on the ground with emergency responders and government officials becomes key to providing timely and relevant advice to Canadians before they travel, and to ensuring we can reach out quickly to assist Canadians injured and affected by attacks.
We are constantly re-evaluating and improving the way we work. Given the increasing demand for consular assistance, it's more important than ever that we offer consular services that serve the needs of today's Canadians.
We are modernizing our approach. For example, Global Affairs Canada relies on innovative new initiatives such as the emergency watch and response centre, which deals with calls on a 24-7 basis from around the world, and a standing rapid deployment team that is comprised of specially trained, experienced officials ready to deploy on hours' notice to anywhere they're needed. They helped Canadians during the serious earthquake in Nepal in 2015, and most recently have been on the ground over the past month across the Caribbean, supplementing our hurricane response there.
No longer do Canadians need to reach out in person or via telephone to access services or seek travel advice. In a social media age, we need to be where Canadians are to give them access to timely information and assistance. While the sources of information multiply exponentially, Global Affairs Canada believes that we play an important role in providing Canadians with reliable, accurate, and timely travel advice and information. Consular services are adapting to this reality through new services such as the digital “Ask Travel” initiative.
Recent advice targeted to vulnerable groups, such as young people at risk of forced marriage or LGBTQ2 travellers, ensures that Canadian values inform our consular information and response. While the international legal framework for our work remains founded in the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, we are using all of these new avenues to respond to new trends and challenges and to expand our international collaboration with like-minded partners to resolve emerging issues.
As we have recently seen in the Caribbean, times of crisis underscore the importance of the role of Global Affairs Canada in coordinating the government's response to international emergencies and providing support to affected Canadians in their time of need. While this work is guided by well-established coordination mechanisms, each emergency has unique characteristics, and we need to be flexible and adaptable in bringing a broad range of tools and assets to the consular response.
As hurricanes Irma, Jose, and Maria broke, Global Affairs Canada provided timely travel advisories warning Canadians of approaching danger and brought together key departments and agencies to ensure an effective whole-of-government response. Following three intense weeks in crisis mode, we are proud to have responded to over 5,000 phone and email inquiries from concerned Canadians and to have successfully facilitated the safe return to Canada of over 1,700 Canadians via a variety of means.
However, our work does not stop when a given crisis ends. Our emergency response framework is continually being refined as we draw lessons learned from past emergencies to inform contingency planning and undertake regular exercises to ensure early detection and rapid response to new emergencies. The devastating impacts of this season's overlapping hurricanes and the challenges of response in remote islands are already being mined to inform our future responses.
At the heart of every consular case is a personal situation involving a Canadian citizen abroad. Global Affairs Canada takes its responsibility to safeguard the private information of Canadians seriously. For this reason, we do not typically provide public comment on the details of a consular case, even when some details may already have been disclosed by others into the public domain. While recognizing that you may have particular examples in mind, we will respond to the committee's questions from the broader perspective of program delivery rather than by commenting on individual cases in particular.
To conclude, consular officials are proud of the service we deliver to Canadians abroad. We recognize the need to continue to deliver these services both in exceptional circumstances as well as in the timely routine services needed by the majority of Canadians. We need to maintain an awareness of trends to make sure we are where we're needed, when we're needed.
We are looking for innovative approaches to ensure that our services are effective and efficient, and respect the privacy of Canadians. We will also look to take advantage of opportunities to collaborate with other countries, provinces and territories, non-governmental and international organizations, and the private sector to ensure a strong foundation for our work, and to make sure that the consular services of the 21st century serve Canadian needs.
I would like to thank the honourable members of this committee for their attention. We stand ready to respond to any questions you might have.