When the society’s conference got underway last July in Montreal, dozens of delegates from Africa had been denied visas or never received responses to their applications. Some accused Ottawa of racism on stage, saying international gatherings should not return to Canada.
The controversy followed similar incidents at other global summits hosted in Canada in recent years, for which some African delegates could not obtain visas despite receiving invitations on Canadian government letterhead.
Documents obtained through access-to-information laws show that 1,020 or 36 per cent of visa applications for last summer’s AIDS conference were rejected. Another 10 per cent were not processed by the end of the event.
Canada issued 1,638 visas for the conference, and the documents show that at least 251 people, or about 15 per cent, claimed asylum after entering Canada.
Robert Blanshay, a Toronto immigration lawyer, said making an asylum claim by attending a conference or sporting event in Canada is often one of the few ways people can get to safety.
“I’m not surprised at all that the percentage of people from a certain country (who were) issued visitor visas to come would actually not return home and claim refugee status,” he said, adding that the idea sometimes only occurs to people after they reach Canada and hear about others doing so.
“Good for them. If this is their only way of claiming asylum in a country, then so be it.”
Blanshay said Canada already makes it difficult to get a visa for legitimate purposes, and to claim asylum.
Visa applications are often denied if an applicant doesn’t prove they have enough reasons to stay in their country of residence, such as a stable job, financial savings and family ties.
Ottawa rejected 83.5 per cent of visa applications by prospective conference attendees from Nepal; 55.8 per cent of those from Nigeria; 53.6 per cent from Pakistan and more than 40 per cent from Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Ghana.
An internal report last November that assessed the Immigration Department’s handling of the conference suggested “the need to have better coordination of high-profile events, ensuring that partners are engaged early on and that they remain in constant, continued and detailed communication.”
The report said there were some shortfalls within the department, such as a system glitch that made it difficult for some applicants to include an event code used to organize event attendees in a database.
But it largely put the blame on the Geneva-based conference organizers. The International AIDS Society did not respond to questions before a deadline.
Six weeks ahead of the conference, the document said, organizers provided a list of 6,609 participants but did not include information that was important for identifying their visa applications, including birth dates and application numbers. About two weeks later, the department asked for a list of priority VIPs, and organizers provided 4,200 names. Eventually, the department got the number down to 150 priority attendees.
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“Organizers continually questioned refusals, asking for detailed case-specific information,” the report said.
Public servants began following up on cases individually. Meanwhile, despite saying the cutoff for applications would be two weeks before the event’s start date, they continued receiving new requests.
In general, the report said, teams were hindered by an increase in special events and “various other processing priorities.” It suggested the department should create a team specifically dedicated to special events.
The department promised in the wake of the incident to insist that organizers provide more-complete lists of guests, complete with visa application numbers, two months ahead of events. It suggested they could also provide marginalization factors for immigration officers to consider, such as race, gender identity or physical ability.
The report said working groups and clear roles should be created for “upcoming high-profile events” involving multiple federal agencies. In this case, that would have ensured the Immigration Department, Global Affairs Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada would deliver “the same, unified message to organizers, civil-society members and partner agencies.”
In a statement, the Immigration Department said it had sought information in advance about an AIDS conference hosted by Australia in 2014, including how many asylum claims resulted from the event.
It said it is still monitoring the outcomes of the 251 peoplewho claimed asylum after arriving in Canada for the conference last year.
Among them were 123 people from Uganda, which has some of the world’s most repressive criminal laws against homosexuality. People living in Kenya made 58 claims, while 26 came from people originating from Nigeria.
Complaints also stemmed from visa issues around last December’s COP15 United Nations Biodiversity Conference.
Hundreds of delegates from developing countries complained that they were unable to attend, with visa applications rejected or stalled at a handful of Canadian missions abroad.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said at the time that he had asked visa officers to waive normal criteria such as the likelihood of applicants returning home or requirements about being able to support themselves while in Canada, because many delegates were being hosted by groups who covered their expenses.
Internal data show 751 of 4,167 visa applications, or 18 per cent, were not processed on time for the conference. Of those that were processed, 77 per cent were approved and 2.9 per cent were refused.
The data did not include details about asylum claims following the conference.