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10 visa applicants, one hypocritical reply to gay-rights activists

Prize-winning Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina walks down a street in Nairobi, Kenya Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. Wainaina, one of Africa's leading literary figures, spoke to The Associated Press on Wednesday to explain his decision to publicly declare his homosexuality in an online essay last weekend, in light of a wave of new legislation further criminalizing homosexuality in Nigeria and Uganda. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Ben Curtis/AP

When Uganda's President signed an anti-gay bill into law earlier this year, Ottawa rightly expressed outrage. The law – punishing "aggravated homosexuality" with life in prison – was called "abhorrent" by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. Canada now proudly touts its work on this issue as part of its "principled position" on human rights. Ottawa has also reportedly even funnelled money to opponents of the law inside Uganda.

These admirable efforts make all the more incomprehensible a recent decision to deny visitor visas to 10 Ugandan activists invited to attend a conference on gay rights at the University of Toronto. The Canadian government worries the Ugandans will try to claim political asylum if they are allowed into the country. So, visas denied.

It's a hypocritical decision. These Ugandan activists work on the front lines, trying to protect their communities from appalling treatment at the hand of the state. Canada's decision to refuse them visas undermines them, not to mention Ottawa's efforts to defend the rights of homosexual people around the world.

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Immigration officials cited a number of reasons to justify their decision. None of them are good. In eight of the applications, officials said they did not believe the applicants had a legitimate business purpose in Canada. That's absurd. The U of T conference is a gathering of 160 speakers and 400 delegates from over 40 countries. In six of the applications, immigration officers said the applicants had insufficient funds to support themselves in Canada. That too, seems like a thin excuse; the conference is precisely two days long.

Let's consider for a moment the nightmare scenario here: The activists come to Canada and some end up seeking asylum. Is that so bad? They would likely get it, and with good reason. The Ugandan delegation is currently preparing new visa applications. Ottawa should come to its senses and approve them.

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