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.
We've devoted a lot of energy to improving our digital tools, given that Canadians primarily find their information through the Internet. We use social media like Facebook, Twitter, and a variety of other tools. In 2016 we had 14.2 million visits to our page, travel.gc.ca, which is where we have all of our travel information and advice. This was an increase of 14% compared with the previous year, and we've seen a steady increase in trends of Canadians looking to this for information and the latest news. As advice changes, information is also pushed out to people who are registered for particular countries or regions.
We use our registration of Canadians abroad locally and from headquarters to push out information about changes to the local security context or other emerging environmental threats, such as approaching hurricanes, etc. For example, our Facebook page has 264,000 followers. We have a new Travel Smart app that can be downloaded in mobile form. People can stay abreast of information. We also have a wide range of print and digital publications.
Registration is voluntary, as I noted, so in almost all cases, the number of Canadians that we have registered is a smaller subset of those who we know are actually in a given country. The number tends to be higher in places where people perceive real levels of risk, and lower in places where the environment is perceived as safe. In the most recent storms that passed through the Caribbean, we found, for example, that significant communities of Canadians on very remote islands had not registered. We did not know they were present, and the number of people was sometimes in an order of much greater magnitude.
Re-registration is something we promote at every opportunity. You will have heard us, in our technical briefings and other interactions, really promoting the registration of Canadians, because it is one of the tools we have. We have to use all the tools at our disposal, and they include, in cases of emergency, working with local radio stations and other CB and hand radio operators, and using all manner of forums to try to push out the advice that we have.
I'll just offer some general remarks, and then I'll turn it over to my colleague Mark Berman to talk about the specifics.
Certainly we agree. This is one of the areas that have been of particular focus to us, family-related cases, cases of child custody and in some cases child abduction. We've seen a significant increase in the number of these cases as Canadians increasingly live abroad in different countries.
We had, for example, last year, 886 family-related cases that we were dealing with. It's a significant number, not significant in light of the 265,000, but for us, it's a significant number when you think that those are all individual cases that require our attention. We've put in place extra focus, extra training, and a number of tools—I referred to one in my opening statement about how to assess the well-being of children—but we're operating in foreign legal environments where often we have different legal frameworks.
The Hague convention provides for the signatory states, of which Canada is one, formalized mechanisms that allow countries to speak to each other and have points of contact and formalized processes for working to resolve these cases. But not all states are members of that convention, indeed many of the countries we deal with aren't. We have to find individualized solutions.
I'll turn it over to Mark, who leads the consular unit, including the child protection unit, to speak to that.
I'll just add a couple of comments.
Consular officers are trained to help families navigate and interpret local family laws, and they will help identify potential resources in the countries where these problems occur. As Heather mentioned, if the party is a member of the Hague convention, then that process is facilitated, but it's more complicated if, in fact, the child abduction involves a non-treaty partner of Canada. In that case, consular officers will provide ongoing assistance to the child and both parents.
Each country presents its own set of unique challenges relating to issues such as dual nationality and child custody laws, the recognition of Canada's court orders, and a country's approach to controlling the exit of people from its territory. It depends on the country we're talking about.
Canada, in the international community, is a champion of the Hague convention. We work very hard to promote new memberships to the convention. We do that in a number of ways. In 2013 Canada created a new forum called the Global Consular Forum, and we are the permanent secretariat to that. That is an opportunity for us to work with governments to promote the Hague convention.
We also work within the Colloque, which is the grouping of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. We have agreed to coordinate the response and identify countries where consular issues are particularly challenging and issues of child abduction and such are a problem, to try to facilitate and encourage those countries to sign onto the Hague convention.
As I mentioned, we have an elaborate emergency preparedness system. Within Global Affairs Canada, we have a 24-7 emergency watch and response centre that operates 365 days a year on a continual basis. It monitors for natural disasters that we can see coming, such as hurricanes that form and move, but also emerging news of disasters like earthquakes. We saw two earthquakes occur recently in Mexico, and there was no warning. We hear first through different meteorological or other seismic notification sites, so there are different kinds of disasters.
We prepare and exercise throughout the year. We have a highly specialized unit within our branch that deals with emergency management. They exercise on a whole-of-government basis working with Public Safety, CBSA, IRCC, DND, and all of the different partners with whom we work in a whole-of-government response. We have a well-exercised task force system that comes together almost immediately.
In the case of these storms, I would say that one of the important parts of our emergency preparedness is the advice that we give to Canadians before hurricane season starts. We do this in May and June, and we reach out through the travel industry and through our publications and digital footprint to talk to Canadians about the kinds of things that they need to do when travelling to these destinations. It's about registering. It's about having travel insurance. It's about having emergency points of contact and making sure people know where they are and when, and who they should go to—namely local authorities—for advice if they find themselves unable to depart before an event like this arrives. There's that whole front end of preparedness.
When these storms we're monitoring start to intensify, and the tracks, for example, start to focus on certain regions, our travel advisories kick in. We started on August 26 providing advisories on storms that were approaching, and beginning on the first of September, we started assembling our task force. We started meeting and having coordination calls to plan the response.
Part of the issue is that there's a high degree of uncertainty with regard to these storms. Where we think they're going doesn't necessarily end up being where they hit. Also there's some uncertainty as to who is present in the areas that are going to be the most affected.
I would say that it's a very well-exercised capacity that we have. Each storm is different, and that's why the lessons learned are so important. The Nepal earthquake was different from hurricane Matthew, and they were both different from this.
I would say that, in terms of the level of complexity, these storms were among the most complex situations that we've faced, given the tight sequence of three very intense storms hitting the same places, very isolated island chains that had limited physical and communications infrastructure.
We fully appreciate how difficult these situations are for Canadians caught up in them and sometimes even more difficult for their loved ones back home who don't have any information on how they're doing and who feel powerless to help them. These situations create a high level of anxiety, and we completely understand that. You're right; it is part of our job to reach out to those Canadians, to deal with families here in Canada who are concerned and friends who call us, and also to deal with Canadians directly in the field.
As you mentioned, we have set up a fairly elaborate structure. We have the emergency watch and response centre, which operates 24-7, but in the case of a significant mass emergency like the ones we just experienced, we set up an emergency call centre that's also staffed 24-7 and has very large numbers of officers answering phones, answering enquiries, passing on information. You've experienced it yourself. It is a beehive of activity. We have hundreds of trained volunteers who come in to do that work after hours to keep that response going, and we had a very prolonged period of almost 28 days this month where we had these centres going.
In the staffing of that centre and its ability to take calls, all the information we have, the metrics from our system, are that it was adequately staffed and that there were not significant wait times. I appreciate what you're saying that some people might have had a different experience and that's part of the lessons learned follow-up that we have. We believe that calls are being answered in a very timely way.
What was much more problematic for people who were concerned, relatives on this end, was, in the initial phases of this disaster, the lack of communication on the ground. These islands did not have developed communications. Even though they might have been doing well and were simply isolated and unable to communicate back, it was difficult for us to reach them and impossible for their families to reach them except sporadically, especially with the loss of power, etc.
Part of our lessons learned is reviewing all these situations and trying to look at new and creative ways to access people as these storms progress. We mobilized a whole variety of different responses that we haven't necessarily had to use. We had evacuations by boat. We had small, fixed-wing aircraft, float planes. Many different types of responses were mobilized, all means to reach people and get them off the islands. I mentioned using local radio stations. We had people broadcasting different departure and evacuation times.
I think this is a really important role. We place the highest priority on that communications link, and we focus on it.