Canada: Global AIDS conference kicks off amid visa protests | Africa | DW

Philomena Gorey’s participation in the 24th International Conference on AIDS, which began on Friday in Montreal, Canada, attracted a lot of attention. The biennial event brings together thousands of scientists, policy makers, activists and community workers from around the world to find solutions to the epidemic.

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

His hope was to gain vital contacts and know-how to help start a new HIV charity in his native Kenya.

But on July 22, 88 days after she applied for the visa, she received a rejection letter in her inbox. He did not have time to answer, and was denied entry.

“I’m very upset, I’m very angry right now,” he told DW in a video call. “I’ve sacrificed a lot, put in a lot of effort to be involved and to be able to give back to my community.

“In Africa, we are often affected by these diseases, and I expected them to give us more opportunities. I think because we come from African countries.”

Philomena Gorey spent around $2,000 to attend the conference

Canadian authorities are under pressure

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

The situation is turning into a crisis. The AIDS 2022 conference, organized by the International AIDS Society (IAS), was hailed as an opportunity to “call the world to come together to re-engage and follow science”.

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

African voices are essential

According to the World Health Organization, Africa is home to more than two-thirds of the world’s HIV-infected population.

Sam Pionley stands in front of the window with his hands on his glasses

Sam W. Pionlei was one of the delegates invited by the conference but refused a visa to Canada.

Therefore, 26-year-old Sam V. Pionlai shares her concern about the absence of many voices from Africa at the Global AIDS Conference.

From Liberia, studying computer science in Morocco. She continues to advocate for young people at home, including those with HIV and AIDS.

At the invitation of the IAS and sponsored by the Delaware Church, he intended to attend a conference to present a presentation on violence and HIV prevention for youth and sex workers.

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

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Pionlai told DW. “My youth work is in Africa, I’m going to graduate next year, why stay in Canada?

“This year’s conference was supposed to be an opportunity for Africans to participate. I’m really disappointed in Canada as a whole. I’m disappointed.”

Canada is a “hard choice”

Visa difficulties have led to criticism of the choice of host country. David Ndikumana, executive director of WEKA, an organization that supports LGBTQ minorities and people living with AIDS in the Democratic Republic of Congo, argued that such conferences should be held in countries where they are accessible.

David Ndikumana, with a thick beard and a blue shirt, sat at his desk and computer

David Ndikumana criticizes the choice of Canada as the host country

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

Ken Monteith, CEO of Quebec AIDS charity COCQ-SIDA, also saw problems: “Certainly, Canada seems to have a tough choice on this issue,” he wrote in an email. “We have to take into account that there are populations in many countries in the north and south who have difficulty obtaining visas.”

IAS president Adeba Kamarulzaman told DW that Canada was chosen after negotiations with the “middle-income” country ended due to efforts to influence the conference program.

“Delayed and denied visas will negatively impact our ability to hold a truly inclusive conference that represents the communities most affected by HIV. The conference organizing committee has raised their concerns to the highest level with many people who want to attend AIDS 2022 as well,” he wrote.

Canada ‘understands the disappointment’

Aidan Strickland, a spokesman for Canada’s Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, told DW in an email that applications from around the world were “evaluated the same and according to the same criteria.”

“We understand the frustration that some applicants may have experienced when they did not receive visas in time for the International AIDS Conference. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has taken every step possible to expedite the processing of applications and facilitate travel for this event. “

He added that IRCC processed 91% of the complaints received. A processed application means acceptance or rejection.

Strickland also noted that time is focused on recycling.

“If it’s made in Africa, I’ll go”

Despite the panic over visas, there are high hopes that the conference will lead to improved solutions to the fight against HIV and AIDS, especially as it has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who cannot attend the conference in person will not be able to participate in some events online.

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

“If it’s done in Africa, I’ll go. It’s much easier for me to participate.”

Edited by Anne Thomas

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