Alex Neve is secretary-general, Amnesty International Canada
Every time we begin to organize a conference, inviting panelists from Africa and the Middle East to share their wisdom and perspective on gender equality or conflict prevention. Every time we arrange for courageous front-line Indigenous leaders and civil society activists from Latin America and Asia to come to Canada for tours to build awareness with parliamentarians, the public and the media about pressing human rights struggles around the world.
Every time, we ready for the inevitable difficulties in obtaining the visas they require to come to Canada. Every time we ashamedly apologize in advance, preparing our colleagues for the cumbersome process and indignities they will face.
And every time we face the very real likelihood that someone will not be granted the visa. Rejected even though they are a human-rights defender of global renown, often with a long-established record of travelling abroad and returning home to the struggle to which every ounce of their being is devoted. But turned down with some unspecific variation of the response that Canada is not convinced they will return home.
This is so commonplace that activists and academics who organize events and conferences taking a global view on pressing issues of rights, justice and the environment have come to expect the inevitable announcement that a number of colleagues are not present because they were unable to obtain a visa.
Of the thousands of decisions made every day under Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act – in Canada and through visa offices around the world – the area that has undoubtedly received little scrutiny has been the granting of visitors’ visas. That is why The Globe and Mail’s recent investigative report, Access denied: Canada’s refusal rate for visitor visas soars, is so welcome.
Admittedly, with an application to visit Canada, there is not as much on the line as there is with an assessment of someone’s claim to refugee status in the face of a grave risk of persecution. And certainly, there are not the same long-term consequences as with an application to immigrate to Canada, be it on the basis of skills and experience, or family connections.
All true. But deciding whether or not someone will be given a visa to visit Canada does nevertheless give rise to a range of human-rights considerations.
There are 54 countries around the world whose nationals are visa-exempt if they wish to travel to Canada. Citizens of 146 countries are, on the other hand, required to go through the onerous steps of applying for a visa if they wish to visit.
You can imagine which countries are on which list. Exempt? France, Norway, South Korea, Chile, the United States. Non-exempt? Afghanistan, South Sudan, Haiti, China, Guatemala.
So right from the outset the very notion of visas and who needs them points to differential treatment for people coming from countries that are wealthier, have closer trade and other relationships with Canada, and are fortunate enough not to face situations of war and serious human-rights abuses.
When the very premise of the system is discriminatory in this way, the process complex, decisions opaque and the outcomes often arbitrary and unfair, human-rights concerns absolutely do arise.
In addition to highlighting how the visa application system deals with civil society leaders and activists, The Globe’s investigation confirms a heartbreaking reality faced by Canadians whose family roots lie in countries facing conflict and human-rights crises.
They optimistically pursue visitors’ visas for parents, siblings and grandparents, hopeful that family will be able to visit and be present for such celebratory milestones as births, marriage and graduation, or more tragic times of illness and death. But Canadians from countries such as Iran, Colombia or Congo will face an almost irrebuttable presumption that because conditions in their country are dire, the wedding invitation may be a ruse and perhaps the family’s real intention is to stay in Canada.
Numbers of applications for visitors visas are increasing, as well as the rejection rate. There are too many human-rights considerations in play to simply accept this as a bureaucratic reality. Ottawa must rethink how applications for visas are handled. Efficiency and cost-savings are not the only things that matter. Canada needs to ensure that individuals who apply to visit Canada are treated fairly, without discrimination and, most important, with dignity and respect.