Philomena Gori has relied heavily on her participation in the 24th International AIDS Conference, which begins Friday in the Canadian city of Montreal. The biennial event brings together thousands of scientists, politicians, activists and social workers from around the world to find solutions to the epidemic.
The 32-year-old, a social worker for people affected by AIDS in Cameroon, had taken time off from her current job and spent around $2,000 (€1,965) applying for the conference, finding accommodation and gathering the necessary paperwork for a visa.
His hope was to gain vital connections and know-how to help him found a new HIV charity in his home country of Kenya.
But on July 22 – 88 days after he submitted his visa application – a rejection letter landed in his inbox. She was refused entry, without having time to react.
“I’m so disappointed, I’m so angry right now,” she told DW in a video call. “I sacrificed a lot, I gave a lot of effort to be present and to be able to give back to my community.
“In Africa, we are the most affected by these diseases, and I expected them to give us more opportunities. I feel like it’s because we come from African countries.”
Philomena Gori spent around $2,000 applying for the conference
Canadian authorities under pressure
Gori is not the only one in this situation. Organizers fear that hundreds more delegates from Africa, Asia and South America are still waiting, or have already been denied, visitor visas.
The situation turns into a scandal. The AIDS 2022 conference, organized by the International AIDS Society (IAS), had been touted as a chance “to call on the world to come together to re-engage and follow science”.
But a day before the event began, the International AIDS Society (IAS) released a statement saying it was “deeply concerned about the high number of visas denied and pending by Canadian authorities”.
“This prevents many people from some of the countries most affected by HIV from entering Canada and attending AIDS 2022, including IAS staff and management.”
Most Wanted African Voices
According to the World Health Organization, Africa is home to more than two-thirds of the world’s population living with HIV, the virus that progresses to AIDS.
Sam W. Pionlay is one of the delegates invited by the conference but was refused a visa by Canada
That’s why 26-year-old Sam W. Pionlay shares the concern of a world AIDS conference taking place with many voices absent from Africa.
Originally from Liberia, he studied computer science in Morocco. He continues to advocate for young people, including those with HIV and AIDS, at home.
With an invitation from the IAS and sponsorship from a church in Delaware, he aimed to come to the conference to present a paper 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 was leaving Canada and returning to Morocco at the end of his trip.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Pionlay told DW. “My youth work is here in Africa, I will finish my degree next year, why would I stay in Canada?
“This year’s conference should have been an opportunity for Africans to participate. I’m really disappointed with Canada as a whole. I feel frustrated.”
Canada “a difficult choice”
Visa difficulties have led to criticism of the choice of host country. David Ndikumana, executive director of the organization WEKA, which provides support for LGBTQ minorities and people with AIDS in the Democratic Republic of Congo, argued that such conferences should take place in more accessible countries.
David Ndikumana criticizes the choice of Canada as host country
His organization has received two invitations to the conference but has not yet received a response regarding visa applications. “I think what Canada is doing is kind of discriminatory,” he told DW. He added that his group wrote a letter asking why only Canada is organizing this international conference. “Why not allow other countries? »
Ken Monteith, chief executive of the Quebec association for the fight against AIDS COCQ-SIDA, also saw problems: “It certainly seems that Canada is a difficult choice on this issue,” he wrote in an email. . “We must bear in mind that there are populations who have difficulty obtaining visas for many countries in the north and south.”
IAS President Adeeba Kamarulzaman told DW that Canada was chosen after negotiations with a “middle-income” country ended following attempts to influence the conference schedule.
“Delayed and denied visas affect our ability to organize a conference that is truly inclusive and representative of the communities most affected by HIV. The conference organizing committee has escalated its concerns to the highest level so that as many people as possible anyone wishing to attend AIDS 2022 please do so,” she wrote.
Canada ‘understands disappointment’
In an email to DW, Aidan Strickland, press officer for Canada’s Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said applications from around the world were “evaluated equally and against the same criteria”.
“We understand the disappointment that would result from some applicants not receiving their visas in time for the International AIDS Conference. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has taken all available measures to expedite the processing of applications as much as possible and facilitate travel. for this event.”
She added that IRCC processed 91% of all applications received. A processed request can mean either an acceptance or a rejection.
Strickland also pointed out that visa processing times can vary.
‘If it happens in Africa, I will go’
Despite the furore over visas, there are still high hopes that the conference will yield improved solutions to fight HIV and AIDS, especially given the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those unable to attend the conference in person have the option of participating in some online events.
Philomena Gori intends to participate in some virtual events and plans to launch her charity as soon as possible. She also hopes to one day have the chance to attend a similar conference much closer to home.
“If it’s done in Africa, I will go. It will be much easier for me to attend.”
Edited by: Anne Thomas