Canada: World AIDS conference begins amid fury over visas

Philomena Gori was very much in attendance at the 24th International AIDS Conference, which begins on Friday in the Canadian city of Montreal. The biennial event brings together thousands of scientists, politicians, activists and social workers from around the world to find solutions to the epidemic.

The 32-year-old, an AIDS social worker in Cameroon, had taken time off from her current job and spent about $2,000 (€1,965) to apply for the conference, secure accommodation and collect the necessary documents for a visa.

Her hope was to gain vital connections and knowledge to help her found a new HIV charity in her home country of Kenya.

But on July 22, 88 days after submitting her visa application, a rejection letter arrived in her inbox. He was denied entry, with no time to react.

“I’m so disappointed, I’m so angry right now,” she told DW in a video call. “I sacrificed a lot, I put a lot of effort into attending and being able to give back to my community.

“In Africa, we are mostly affected by these diseases, and I was hoping that we would be given more opportunities. I feel it is because we come from African countries.”

Philomena Gori spent about $2,000 to apply for the conference

Canadian authorities under pressure

Gori is not alone in this situation. Organizers fear hundreds of delegates from Africa, Asia and South America are still waiting for, or have already been denied, visitor visas.

The situation has become a scandal. The AIDS 2022 conference, organized by the International AIDS Society (IAS), had been presented as an opportunity to “call the world to come together to re-engage and follow science”.

But a day before the event began, the International AIDS Society (IAS) released a statement saying it was “deeply concerned about the high number of visas refused and pending by the Canadian authorities”.

“This is preventing many people from some of the countries most affected by HIV from entering Canada and attending AIDS 2022, including IAS staff and leadership.”

The most needed African voices

According to the World Health Organization, Africa is home to more than two-thirds of the world’s population living with HIV, the virus that progresses to AIDS.

Sam W. Pionlay is one of the delegates invited by the conference but Canada has denied him a visa

That’s why 26-year-old Sam W. Pionlay shares the concern that a world conference on AIDS is taking place with many African voices missing.

Originally from Liberia, he studied computer science in Morocco. Continue to advocate for young people, including those living with HIV and AIDS, at home.

With an invitation from IAS and sponsorship from a church in Delaware, I aimed to travel to the conference to present a paper on violence and HIV prevention for youth and sex workers.

His rejection came on July 19, with Canadian authorities stating in a letter that they were “not satisfied” that he would leave Canada and return to Morocco at the end of his trip.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Pionlay told DW. “My job to help young people is here in Africa, I will finish my degree next year, why would I stay in Canada?

“This year’s conference should have been an opportunity for Africans to participate. I’m very disappointed in Canada as a whole. I feel frustrated.”

Canada ‘a tough choice’

Visa difficulties have led to criticism of the choice of host country. David Ndikumana, executive director of the organization WEKA, which supports LGBTQ minorities and people with AIDS in the Democratic Republic of Congo, argued that such conferences should take place in more accessible countries.

David Ndikumana criticizes the choice of Canada as the host country

His organization received two invitations to the conference, but had yet to receive a response on visa applications. “I think what Canada is doing is a kind of discrimination,” he told DW. He added that his group wrote a letter asking why only Canada is hosting this international conference. “Why not allow other countries?”

Ken Monteith, CEO of the Quebec AIDS charity COCQ-SIDA, also saw problems: “It certainly appears that Canada is a tough choice on this issue,” he wrote in an email. “We have to take into account that there are populations that have difficulty obtaining visas for many countries in the North and the South.”

IAS president Adeeba Kamarulzaman told DW that Canada was chosen after negotiations with a “middle-income” country over attempts to influence the conference program ended.

“Visa delays and denials affect our ability to host a truly inclusive conference that is representative of the communities most affected by HIV. The Conference Organizing Committee has escalated its concerns to the highest levels that as many people who wish to attend AIDS 2022 can attend. Please do,” he wrote.

Canada ‘understands disappointment’

In an email to DW, Aidan Strickland, press secretary for Canada’s Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said applications from around the world were “evaluated equally and with the same criteria.”

“We understand the disappointment that some applicants may not receive their visas in time for the International AIDS Conference. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has taken all available steps to expedite processing as much as possible of applications and facilitate travel for this event.”

He added that IRCC had processed 91% of all applications received. A processed request can mean an acceptance or a rejection.

Strickland also noted that visa processing times can vary.

“If it’s done in Africa, I’ll go”

Despite the furore over visas, there are still high hopes that the conference will lead to improved solutions to combating HIV and AIDS, especially given the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those unable to attend the conference in person have the opportunity to participate in certain events online.

Philomena Gori intends to participate in some virtual events and plans to launch her charity as soon as possible. He also hopes to one day have the opportunity to participate in a similar conference much closer to home.

“If it is held in Africa, I will go there. It will be much easier for me to attend.”

Edited by: Anne Thomas

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