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A passenger walks the halls at Montreal Trudeau Airport on Dec. 23, 2020.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

As a member of the International AIDS Society’s governing council, Harvard University scholar Keletso Makofane was scheduled to be in Montreal for the world’s biggest AIDS conference this week. Instead he is still struggling to get a Canadian entry visa, already knowing that he will miss key meetings.

Dr. Makofane, a South African epidemiologist, is just one of many African delegates who will be absent from crucial discussions at the AIDS conference when it opens on Friday – even though Africa is the continent with by far the largest number of people living with the AIDS virus.

Months of opaque visa delays and poorly explained denials are sparking widespread criticism of Canada for its cumbersome visa policies. But it is also casting a spotlight on the barriers that routinely exclude people from the Global South when events are held in the north.

Ottawa fast-tracking temporary travel visas for people seeking to attend AIDS conference in Montreal

“It systematically keeps people from the Global South from making decisions and being in discussions about programs that will affect them directly,” Dr. Makofane told The Globe and Mail.

“We have all these white people from the Global North discussing HIV, and Africans can’t access that space. It’s really absurd. I’m seeing a lot of messages from colleagues around the world who didn’t manage to get their visas in time.”

Dr. Makofane was due to attend a pre-conference meeting of the AIDS Society’s governing council in Montreal on Tuesday. But on Monday he was still stuck in queues at a visa office in New York, facing days of further delays and hoping to reach Montreal by Sunday at the earliest.

He described the conference as the “town square” for HIV issues globally. “And this year this conference will be missing some very important voices. We have a dilemma because of the racism that’s built into the process of getting into the country.”

The issue of visa denials is far from new. In an investigation in 2018, The Globe documented a rapid rise in visa rejections by the Canadian government. The highest refusal rates were clustered in Africa and the Middle East, where more than 75 per cent of applications from some countries were rejected.

At a time when global health issues are increasingly vital, the latest Canadian visa denials have led to strong criticism. Ayoade Alakija, a Nigerian physician and World Health Organization envoy, tweeted on Monday that the visa delays are “unacceptable.” She said she is refusing to participate in person at the AIDS conference “in solidarity with all Africans who are unable to get there due to visa delays, denials and the exorbitant cost & lack of funding support to travel.” She will instead participate online, an option offered by the conference.

A survey by researchers at Latin American AIDS organizations, published last week, found almost 200 individuals who had struggled to secure visas for the Montreal conference. One-fifth had their applications rejected.

In a statement on the conference website, the International AIDS Society said it was “deeply concerned” by the volume of pending and denied visas. “Visa delays and denied visas are an urgent concern and affect our ability to host a conference that is truly inclusive and representative of the communities most affected by HIV,” it said.

It said the organizing committee “has escalated its concerns to the highest levels.”

Aidan Strickland, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), said the department has been working closely with the conference’s organizers since October to try to ensure the smooth processing of applications.

“We understand the disappointment that would result from some applicants not receiving their visas in time,” Ms. Strickland told The Globe. “IRCC has taken every measure available to expedite as much as possible the processing of applications and facilitate travel for this event.”

Madhukar Pai, the Canada Research Chair in epidemiology and global health at McGill University, said blame lies not just with Canadian visa authorities – the conference organizers at the AIDS Society have also blundered. He questioned the logic behind holding conferences like this in a wealthy Western nation with a reputation for being restrictive on visas.

“If you start off by saying that we want Africans in the meeting but you decided to host it in Montreal, you’ve already failed,” he said. “If it is a global health conference, which is firmly about diseases that primarily affect people in the Global South, then organizing them right now in the richest countries in the world is essentially a slap in the face. They’re basically saying, ‘We’re going to talk about problems that affect you, but it’s okay if you’re not here.’ ”

Dr. Pai said Canada has created a challenging obstacle course for anyone who wants to visit, particularly Africans. Canada’s vaccine requirements make it difficult for most Africans – only 20 per cent of whom are double-vaccinated – to travel here.

Even before the pandemic, University of Calgary law professor Gideon Christian said he’s seen cases where the government has taken a full year to decide on a visa application from an African applicant.

“That’s totally inexcusable. You cannot hold COVID responsible for that,” he told The Globe. “What we have seen is a situation of extraordinary delays in the processing of applications, and that delay is as good as refusal.”

University of Ottawa professor Meredith Terretta, the lead researcher on an academic project studying Canada’s visa barriers, said the high rate of visa refusals “threatens to undermine Canada’s research achievements” on the world stage. “That African researchers seem to be disproportionately affected by this visa barrier is even more troubling,” she told The Globe.

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