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Ottawa fast-tracking travel visas for AIDS conference amid sharp criticism

OTTAWA — The federal government is prioritizing temporary travel visas for people seeking to attend the International AIDS Conference in Montreal at the end of July.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser speaks during a news conference with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, Wednesday, April 6, 2022 in Ottawa.The federal government says it is now prioritizing temporary travel visas for foreigners to attend the World AIDS conference in Montreal at the end of July. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — The federal government is prioritizing temporary travel visas for people seeking to attend the International AIDS Conference in Montreal at the end of July.

But the conference begins in two weeks and hundreds of people hoping to attend are still in limbo about their travel plans. Many others, mostly from Africa, Asia and South America, already had their visa requests rejected, including some who received scholarships partially funded by the federal government in order to attend.

A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said in an emailed statement to The Canadian Press that overseas visa offices were recently sent lists of attendees to the conference and told to put their applications to the top of the pile for processing.

"(Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada) has taken every measure available to expedite the applications as quickly as possible and facilitate travel for this event," said Aidan Strickland.

Almost three weeks ago, Fraser received a letter signed by more than 250 Canadian and international humanitarian organizations heavily critical of Canada's visa process and demanding he intervene. The letter said at least 400 delegates were still waiting for a visa.

"As things stand, the upcoming conference in Montreal will have doctors, scientists, and advocates from high-income countries attending in person — 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 attend virtually or not at all," reads the letter, which was led by the Quebec coalition of community AIDS organizations.

"This is not acceptable and not the image of Canada we want to showcase to the world."

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

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

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

Javier Bellocq, an Argentine who sits on the communities delegation to the board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said there are some positive signs that the Canadian government is trying to solve the visa delays.

He said 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 passport for the final visa to be issued.

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

"We only have two weeks," he said.

He said for those living outside the major cities, they have to submit their passports by courier, which will take even longer to get the documents processed.

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

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

Ssemanda is to present his research at the conference on improving adhesion to antiretroviral medication 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 has not received a response.

Bellocq said this is not the first time visa limitations in developed countries have restricted people from developing countries from attending the AIDS conference and it won't be the last. He said he is pushing to have a session at the Montreal event dedicated to discussing the problem.

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

— With files from Jacob Serebrin in Montreal.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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