Montreal AIDS conference organizer warns of ‘catastrophe’ if delegates denied visas

Hundreds of delegates from Asia, Africa and Latin America scheduled to attend a major AIDS conference in Montreal next month are in limbo because Ottawa has not issued them visas, organizers say, while dozens of others have seen their applications rejected.

Those who have either been denied visas or have not received a response from the Canadian government include researchers scheduled to present their work and delegates who received scholarships to attend the conference.

Dr. Jean-Pierre Routy, a professor of medicine at McGill University and local co-chair of the International AIDS Conference, said in an interview Friday that 1,200 people from developing countries have received scholarships to attend the conference and at least 400 are still waiting for visas.

He said it’s those 1,200 people who benefit the most from the opportunity to exchange with other conference attendees. If a significant percentage of them can’t come “it will be a catastrophe for the spirit of the conference, for the image of Canada and the federal government,” he said.

Routy said the International AIDS Society wrote to the Canadian government Thursday in an effort to accelerate the visa approval process, adding that if delegates don’t have their visas approved in the next two weeks, many may not be able to book flights and find accommodation before the conference starts July 29.

Dr. Jean-Pierre Routy of McGill University, says the spirit of the conference will be destroyed if delegates and researchers from the countries most affected by AIDS cannot attend. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

Ironically, he said, much of the funding to bring scholarship recipients to the conference came from the federal government, which gave the conference $3 million.

Jonathan Ssemanda, a PhD student at Makerere University in Uganda who is scheduled to present his research on improving adhesion to antiretroviral medication at the conference, said he applied for a visa more than two months ago. He was told it would take 30 business days to process, but he still has not received a response.

Ssemanda said it’s frustrating to see colleagues from non-African countries getting their visas approved while he continues to wait.

“I am not a criminal,” he said in an interview Thursday. “I am married here. I have a job here. I’m a student here. I still have three or four more years ahead.”

Ssemanda, who paid $185 to apply for the visa and submit his fingerprints and photograph, said he doesn’t understand why the Canadian government continues to accept visa applications from countries like Uganda if it doesn’t plan to approve them.

The Canadian Press asked Immigration Minister Sean Fraser if he is aware of the problem and what is being done about it, but his office did not immediately provide a response.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser’s office has not responded to questions about the visa problems. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Javier Belocq, an Argentine who sits on the communities delegation to the board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said his group launched a survey this week trying to get a sense of how many people were being denied visas to travel to the conference. Within two days, 60 people responded to say they’re having issues, with half saying their applications had been rejected.

Belocq said he isn’t sure if he’ll get a visa himself in time after a complex application process that required the help of a friend in Toronto to complete. “It was a nightmare,” he said.

His friend spent 10 hours online trying to fill out all the required paperwork and, after Belocq had his fingerprints and a photo taken on June 13 as part of the application, he was told it would take at least a month before a visa might be issued.

Belocq said as things stand, the conference will have many doctors and scientists from the global north attending in person — many of whom come from countries whose citizens don’t need a travel visa to come to Canada.

But the people with HIV, the community activists and the health-care workers from the global south, where HIV and AIDS are far more prevalent, will either have to attend virtually or not at all.

He said the conference, which in the past has drawn around 20,000 participants, is only really valuable if the scientists and the communities affected are brought together.

“We have to put people at the centre,” he said, adding that he’s annoyed the International AIDS Society didn’t have plan in place to ensure people can attend.

Iwatutu Joyce Adewole, the Africa NGO delegate to the UNAIDS organization, said that while the Canadian government has issued her a six-day visa to attend the conference, she’s in touch with 13 other people from African countries who are still waiting for approval

Adewole, whose work is focused HIV prevention, as well as sexual and reproductive health among young women and adolescent girls in Nigeria — a population that is increasingly affected by HIV/AIDS — said the people who are most affected need to be able to attend the conference.

Adewole said the AIDS crisis in Africa is driven by inequality, which has made access to drugs and information more difficult than in wealthier regions.

“If the people affected by this inequality are not present, then you’re saying they do not count and their voice does not matter and you can do things with or without them,” she said.

Adewole said international health conferences should be held in countries that are accessible to people from around the world.

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