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Barcelona: visa barriers may disrupt conference.

About 90% of the AIDS epidemic today is in poor or developing countries, and these regions are expected to be a major focus of the XVI International AIDS Conference 2002 (July 7-12 in Barcelona, Spain). But Spanish embassies in India, the Congo, and many other developing countries are denying scientists, journalists, and conference scholarship recipients the visas they need to enter Spain to attend. One week before the meeting, it appears that many will be unable to go -- including recipients of scholarships partly financed by the Spanish government itself. (Citizens of the U.S., the countries in the European Union, and about 45 other countries do not need visas to visit Spain, so this problem does not affect them directly. The visa-free countries, listed at, include almost none in Africa or Asia.)

AIDS Treatment News learned:

* As of June 28, no one from the DRC (the Congo) had been allowed to travel to Spain -- including at least one leading scientist. Visa applications were either denied, or not responded to at all.

* We have also heard of serious problems in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Kenya, the Ivory Coast, and Colombia -- and this is not an exhaustive list. Often people have been put through application procedures that may be impossible to meet in time no matter what they do. For example, according to Indian applicants, Spanish embassy staffs were instructed to give out very few application forms. One woman with young children was told to travel 2,000 km to Delhi to possibly get the form -- and then pay to stay there a week while it was processed. Sometimes the applicant cannot get a form at all, or the filled-out form is not accepted, or the applicant never gets an answer. Some have been told to call within a short time window on only one day a week -- then told the computer is down and they need to call the following week. Applicants in Colombia have been told they need to wait up to six months for a visa.

* A pre-conference meeting for professional, mainstream journalists from developing countries may have half of the journalists excluded because they could not get Spanish visas.

* The Barcelona conference organizers have arranged scholarships for leading AIDS workers and activists from developing countries. An issue for them is that applicants for a Spanish visa must prove they have enough money to travel to Spain -- but those eligible for scholarships may not have it. The Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, replying on the visa controversy, which came to public attention only on June 18, said "sometimes the visa applicants do not fulfill the requirements that Spanish law requests, such as the minimum economic means that an individual must have when entering the country, and that the process will ultimately depend on whether delegates are able to fulfill these legal conditions." Apparently the fact that their expenses are being paid by a scholarship from the conference did not count. Also, they may have to show their original tickets -- not a fax or electronic ticket -- but unlike those who buy their own, they have little or no control over when they receive them.

Additionally, African, Asian, and other poor-country delegates reaching Spain through other countries in Europe may need travel visas for those countries as well -- another chance for a glitch that could keep them out of the conference.

* According to the Conference organizers, the Spanish government has informed its embassies around the world about the conference, and told them who is invited to attend, so they can get visas. The Conference Web site has published a list of exactly what documents applicants should need. At some Spanish consulates in some countries this system is working. In others it is not.

* These problems are not new. At the Vancouver international AIDS conference in 1996, according to one conference organizer, the staff had to work for months on Canadian visa problems -- in the end, about a dozen delegates were unable to get visas and could not come. Also, according to this organizer, one of the problems proved to be corruption at some of the local embassies, with local staff seeking payment to get documents processed. (Incidentally, after the Vancouver conference, only two of the more than a thousand scholarship recipients at that conference sought refugee status in Canada -- though fear of refugee applicants reaching Canada was a major reason for the visa problems. One has since returned to his country; the other is still in Canada and doing AIDS outreach work.)

We have not seen any indication that the current difficulties resulted from September 11 or the fear of terrorism. In India, for example, the discrimination appears to be against the whole nation, through efforts to limit the total number of Indians entering Spain -- a de facto quota with no effort whatever to determine who might be dangerous.

[Note, July 9: As the conference begins, some of the problems were resolved in time for persons to attend; 20 from Nigeria were granted visas, for example. We do not yet know how many delegates from developing countries were ultimately admitted to Spain, and how many were not.]

Comment: Race and Travel

What we are hearing from developing countries is that beyond the immediate issue, the important problem is that people from poor countries are not welcome in Europe or the U.S. -- not even for the most legitimate travel by those who are leaders in their countries and very unlikely to try to stay. This discrimination is mostly against Africans and Asians, and in the developing world is generally seen as racist. Meanwhile, many Europeans are understandably upset that the sheer number of immigrants is changing the whole character of their societies. (In the U.S., obstacles to AIDS conference delegates are even worse, as the U.S. will not admit anyone with HIV, except through waivers that could target them for discrimination in their own or other countries.)

One avenue for action is suggested by the fact that in the United States at least, few people have any idea how serious the visa discrimination is (even for HIV-negative visitors). It is assumed that most Africans and Asians cannot travel here or to Europe simply because they cannot afford to -- but not that governments are arbitrarily limiting the number of those allowed to come, even for medical or scientific meetings. Since this issue has not been on the table, it would help to raise consciousness and make sure U.S. and European citizens know what obstacles their governments impose, mostly on Africans and Asians but also on people from poor countries elsewhere, who want to visit for any reason. African or Asian citizenship has been made an obstacle to participation in the modern world.

We are also hearing from developing countries that international AIDS conferences should not be held in countries where visa problems are predictable. One Asian activist suggested India, Malaysia, or Nepal as having the necessary infrastructure without the discriminatory policies. There must be others as well.

Why Can't International Conferences Cost Less?

If the AIDS world does discuss holding future international AIDS conferences only in locations where people of all nations are allowed to attend, then we should also address the other big solidarity issue around these conferences -- their admission price, around $1,000 for the five-day meeting. We have seen a large, multi-track conference run in a first-class hotel in San Francisco, one of the world's most expensive cities, for about a tenth the per day admission price of the international AIDS conferences. We checked and found that not only is there no subsidy, but this meeting makes a small profit every year.

How could a conference in San Francisco pay expenses at a tenth the admission charge of the AIDS meetings? The key was to design low cost from the ground up. For example, this conference is held off season (so sometimes it's raining instead of sunny outside), using hotel space that would otherwise be empty (in contrast to the AIDS conferences, which are held in the middle of the tourist season, adding to logistical difficulties as well as expense). A good businessperson who is committed to low cost handles the negotiations with the hotel and with other suppliers. The meeting was never a cash cow for anyone.

To help rethink the price of international meetings, activists could talk to meeting planners with developing world experience, and develop and publish scenarios for how to hold conferences that are open to everybody, easy to get to, and self-supporting at a tenth the price of the current setup (which then might be reduced to zero through donations, grants, or other funding). It does seem possible.
COPYRIGHT 2002 John S. James
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Author:James, John S.
Publication:AIDS Treatment News
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Jun 28, 2002
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