Ottawa fast-tracks travel visas for AIDS conference amid heavy criticism

OTTAWA – The federal government is prioritizing temporary travel visas for people wishing to attend the International AIDS Conference in Montreal in late July.

But the conference starts in two weeks and hundreds of people hoping to attend are still uncertain about their travel plans. Many others, mostly from Africa, Asia and South America, have already had their visa applications rejected, including some who received partially federally funded scholarships to attend.

A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said in an emailed statement to The Canadian Press that visa offices overseas recently received lists of conference attendees and told them to place their requests at the top of the stack for processing.

“(Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada) has taken all available steps to expedite applications as quickly as possible and facilitate travel for this event,” said Aidan Strickland.

Nearly three weeks ago, Fraser received a letter signed by more than 250 Canadian and international humanitarian organizations strongly criticizing Canada’s visa process and demanding his intervention. The letter indicated that at least 400 delegates were still awaiting visas.

“As things stand, the upcoming conference in Montreal will bring together in-person doctors, scientists and advocates from high-income countries – while many people living with HIV/AIDS from the most affected communities, as well as experienced health care workers from the front lines, will either have to participate virtually or not at all, ”reads the letter, led by the Quebec coalition of community organizations in the fight against AIDS.

“It is not acceptable and it is not the image of Canada that we want to show to the world.”

Tian Johnson, founder of the African Alliance, a health rights organization, criticized Canada in a recent statement, calling it “truly despicable” that Canada had offered to host the conference, offered millions of dollars to make this happen, and then prevented the voices of those most affected by HIV/AIDS from participating.

“Without us, AIDS 2022 (will continue to) be white, privileged and academic,” Johnson said.

The pre-conference begins on July 27 and the full conference on July 29. The International AIDS Conference usually attracts up to 20,000 people. The last version was supposed to be held in San Francisco in 2020, but ended up being entirely virtual due to COVID-19.

Javier Bellocq, an Argentinian who sits on the communities’ delegation to the board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said there were positive signs that the Canadian government was trying to resolve visa delays.

He said that in Argentina and Peru, people who have submitted the required fingerprints and submitted their applications have recently started receiving the documents they need to submit their passports for the final visa to be issued.

But he said even that is a long process, noting he waited in line for hours in Buenos Aires recently, handed over his passport to the Canadian government, but has no idea when he will get it back with a visa. .

“We only have two weeks,” he said.

He said for those who live outside major cities, they have to submit their passports by mail, which will take even longer for the documents to be processed.

Jonathan Ssemanda, a doctoral student at Makerere University in Uganda who waited more than two months for his visa, said it was finally approved at the end of June.

“We have seen a significant change,” he said in a text message.

Ssemanda is due to present his research at the conference on improving adherence to antiretroviral drugs 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 hasn’t heard back.

Bellocq said this is not the first time that visa limitations in developed countries have prevented people from developing countries from attending the AIDS conference and it will not be the last. He said he was pushing to have a session at the Montreal event devoted to discussing the issue.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 12, 2022.

— With files from Jacob Serebrin in Montreal.

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