Asylum claims followed Montreal AIDS summit marred by visa woes, planning issues | CBC News

Almost one-sixth of guests at a major AIDS conference in Montreal last year who received Canadian visas ended up claiming asylum, according to internal data obtained by The Canadian Press.

The documents also show that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) struggled to work with the International AIDS Society as both tried to avoid a mass refusal of visas.

When the society’s conference got underway in Montreal in July 2022, 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 visa applications for last summer’s AIDS conference were rejected, representing 36 per cent. 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 the country.

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.”

A sign outside a government building in Ottawa.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says it has found no fault in its handling of visas related to last year’s AIDS conference in Montreal. (Casey Stranges/CBC)

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.

Most problems came from conference itself: IRCC

An internal report last November that assessed the Immigration Department’s handling of the conference suggested “the need to have better co-ordination 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 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 birthdates 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.

“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.

It said it is still monitoring the outcomes of the 251 people who 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.

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