Canada has refused to issue visas to 10 Ugandans over concerns they’d stay to seek asylum.
Canada has refused to issue visitor visas to 10 Ugandan activists invited to Toronto’s World Pride human rights conference in June over concerns they would stay to seek asylum.
Gay rights advocates say the decisions by the Canadian visa posts in Nairobi and London speak to the hypocrisy of the Stephen Harper government, which, in February, joined other Western nations in condemning Uganda for passing one of the world’s harshest anti-homosexuality laws.
“We are shocked and appalled. These individuals from Uganda are some of the most courageous heroes,” said Andrea Houston of #ENDhatelaws, a coalition founded in response to homophobia/transphobia across the globe, amid the controversy over anti-gay laws passed in Russia prior to the Winter Olympics.
“They are here to share their stories and have every intention to go home after the conference, because they all have work to do in Uganda. The assumption is they are here to claim asylum. The question is: Why can’t they, coming from the most hostile place in the world to LGBTQ people?”
The 10 men and women — all working in precarious conditions to support Uganda’s LGBTQ community — are among 160 speakers and 400 delegates from over 40 countries invited to the June 25-27 conference at the University of Toronto.
Conference co-chair Brenda Cossman said the first visa denial was reported in early April, but concerns grew when other Ugandan invitees all had their applications rejected.
Frank Mugisha, a prominent Ugandan LGBTQ advocate and winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, is the only one who has a valid visa to the conference as its keynote speaker. He has a multiple-entry visa from his previous travels.
“The conference is a global conversation of LGBTQ human rights. It is really important for the Ugandans to be here, so we can hear from them of what’s happening on the ground in Uganda,” said Cossman.
“They are here not just to share their stories. We want to build a global movement as to how to be their effective allies. . . . We are at risk of losing their voices.”
Houston said more than 80 countries criminalize homosexuality, including half a dozen that call for the death penalty. Uganda’s anti-gay law is among the strictest, with punishment of up to life imprisonment for being gay and jail sentences for not reporting gay people.
The anti-gay law signed by President Yoweri Museveni in February was met with protests by rights groups and condemnations from the United Nations and Western governments, including Canada.
“This act is a serious setback for human rights, dignity and fundamental freedoms, and deserves to be widely condemned,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said then.
“Our engagement on human rights issues will only become more persistent. We will continue to support efforts to decriminalize homosexuality and combat violence against people on the basis of their sexual orientation.”
A review of the visa decisions showed the Ugandan’s applications were rejected for a combination of reasons: lack of travel history, family ties in Canada and in Uganda, and insufficient funds for the trip.
In eight of the applications, officials concluded they did not believe the applicants had a legitimate business purpose in Canada. In six, the officers said the applicants did not have the money to “carry out your stated purpose in going to Canada or to maintain yourself while in Canada and to effect your departure.”
Nancy Caron, a spokeswoman for the immigration department, said officials understand people are disappointed when their applications are refused, but the onus is on the applicant to show that they meet the requirements.
“Decisions are made by highly trained public servants. All applications from around the world are assessed equally against exactly the same criteria, regardless of their country of origin,” said Caron.
“Visa officers look at many factors in assessing whether an applicant is a genuine temporary resident.”
NDP MP Craig Scott (Toronto-Danforth) is working with Immigration Minister Chris Alexander’s office to address the visa issue.
“They are doing what they can to restart the process,” said Scott, adding that the Ugandan group is preparing a new visa application.