Key populations, communities and civil society face obstacles in attending international meetings
Javier Hourcade BellocqArticle Type:
Article Number: 8
The International AIDS Society (IAS) is failing to facilitate putting communities at the heart of the HIV response
ABSTRACT Key populations and other communities from the developing world are unable to attend the International AIDS Conference due to the prolonged and bureaucratic visa process. It is hard to put people at the centre of the HIV response when their very presence at the conference -- and other such events -- is thwarted by the difficulties in obtaining the correct travel and other documentation.
The 24th International AIDS Conference, organized by the International AIDS Society (IAS), will be held between 29 July and 2 August in Montreal, Canada. However, based on present progress, it seems likely that people living with HIV (PLHIV) and key populations (KPs), communities and other civil society representatives will be thin on the ground – thanks to the problems in getting a visa that the IAS has simply failed to cater for.
Social media is alive with complaints from participants from the Global South who are facing challenges in getting their documentation, including Canadian, Schengen and US visas, to attend conferences.
Overly bureaucratic and lengthy processes
The IAS has either underestimated or is unaware of the cumbersome and highly bureaucratic process for participants needing to obtain a visa to enter Canada and attend the conference. Even registration letters for scholarship holders and those who have paid in advance to attend will arrive too late for applicants who have been offered slots for interview dates after the conference by the Canadian Embassies in their countries.
There is a widespread crisis in developing countries, regardless of region, in accessing Canadian visas. Many affected people find that, depending on the country they come from, getting a visa for the United States is surprisingly much simpler than for Canada. Also, visa processing costs are CAD 100 (around $78) and the biometric data collection costs CAD 80 ($62) which must be paid in advance by the participants themselves, even if they can claim it back later. For many countries, this is an amount equivalent to a basic basket of food for one to three months, even more if the applicant has to have a medical examination and X-ray.
Much of the visa processing is outsourced to private companies, which is why consular goodwill is of little use. The IAS has just informed would-be participants that it is in contact with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to see how the Consulates can speed up the process. As we have learned, exceptions are always at the discretion of the Consul and not the participants’ governments.
Table 1 outlines the steps required to obtain the relevant documentation and visa to attend the conference. It is exhausting to read about it, never mind having to go through the process.
Table 1. Steps to obtain a visa for AIDS 2022, challenges and possible consequences
|Step in the process||Challenge||Possible consequence|
|Open a user account||
|Complete the online questionnaire||
|Payment of visas and biometric data collection||
|Biometric data collection||
|Migration and transit||
Policy and financial constraints discriminate against vulnerable groups
In addition, the application form requires access to a computer with a particular browser and many hours of trying, completing, and uploading six or more sets of scanned information into a faulty webpage. Then it’s time to pay with a credit card (CAD180 or $140). Then you have to get an appointment for biometric data collection and thereafter send the passport to the embassy through the outsourced private company with no estimated date for the next step, e.g., a consular interview. Many PLHIV and KPs will be turned away because they cannot demonstrate formal employment and a credit history and must have a confirmed ticket and paid travel insurance in hand.
According to the application form, having or having had tuberculosis is an exclusion criterion and any indication of a health issue may result in a new step of review and certification by a physician.
Exclusion of communities from being at the center of the response
While the Global Fund and its partners such as the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have strategies which give a key role to communities by putting them at the heart of the response, the stark reality does not reflect this. By holding conferences first in the US and now in Canada and failing to provide applicants with the support needed to obtain their visas, the IAS is demonstrating a clear bias: its conferences are elitist, for people and communities living in developed countries and those who do not require a visa.
Surely the IAS cannot know about the visa crisis for developing countries’ participants and yet continue with a venue in a Canadian city? Sadly, we know the answer. For decades IAS and civil society/communities have been working to build bridges between communities and science. But this concept seems to have gone out of fashion. That alone explains how a conference can be organized where most of its participants will be health professionals, researchers and communities from the so-called North. Promoting a double standard, whereby those living in the so-called South are, at best, passive virtual spectators.
The IAS is wrong to believe that the International AIDS Conference belongs solely to the organization itself, rather than those who participate in it. Moreover, it is also wrong to believe that its decisions have no consequences. The time has come for the IAS secretariat and its board to be held accountable for so many blunders and discriminatory decisions.
If the scientific and academic establishments still believe that they will end AIDS without the meaningful participation of civil society and communities, they have learned nothing in forty years. And we know how this will end.
Have your say!
The Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC) Key Correspondents team and the HIV 2025 Platform, are receiving many reports of stalled scholarship application processes, challenges, and bottlenecks, as well as rejections. With the support of organizations in Canada and globally, they are gathering information about the processes faced by people planning to attend the upcoming AIDS 2022 International AIDS Conference in Montreal in person.
As a result, a survey has been set up to collect the experiences of applying for a visa and document this crisis of participation restrictions on individuals, especially delegates from developing countries. Its findings will be used to inform advocacy with the IAS, its sponsors, and partners to prevent conferences from continuing to be organized in places with very limited access.
The survey is available in English, Spanish and French through the links below. Please do participate and share this tool with your colleagues,
* Javier Hourcade Bellocq represents the Communities Delegation to the Global Fund Board. The Communities Delegation comprises a group of up to 40 individuals living with HIV, and affected by TB and malaria, working on Global Fund-related issues from around the world.