Columbia is the unlikely epicentre of a visa row that often pits travellers from the global south against western governments. The non-governmental organization Amref Health Africa just announced its plans to boycott the Health Systems Global (HSG) conference, taking place in Bogota, starting on October 31 to November 4, 2022.
Dr. Githingi Gitahi, the Amref Health Africa Global Chief Executive Officer says all members of his organization will miss in-person attendance at the HSG conference, whose focus is promoting health policy and systems research.
The decision not to attend HSG was according to Dr. Githingi, taken so that Amref Health Africa could show solidarity with participants from the Global South that have experienced systemic visa and passport discrimination.
“Over the past year or so we have seen a pattern of practice which has perpetuated an inequity disadvantage for those from Global South, specifically Africa which at its worst was demonstrated by the Covid-19 vaccine inequity but also systematically in the passport, visa discrimination,” he says.
A day after Dr. Githingi’s announcement, the HSG had a message on its website telling potential conference attendees that it was no longer giving out visa letters, as the Columbian government website put in place to deal with visas had allegedly crashed.
However, Dr. Githinji explains that the boycott is about more than the Columbian government’s decision, as the harsh visa regimes stopping people of colour and especially Africans attending global conferences is now a widespread problem.
“We know of colleagues who were unable to attend UNGA [United Nations General Assembly), World Health Summit in Berlin and indeed cases of suspicious treatment at immigration have been highlighted,” he says.
The increasing popularity of right-wing political parties in the West has fueled anti-immigration sentiments, particularly targeting black and brown people.
Western governments seem to have reacted to these anti-immigration sentiments by introducing harsh visa regimes that have now culminated in Amref Health Africa boycotting a conference in Colombia, a country whose population is also targeted with harsh visa regimes from countries in Europe, Australia, and North America.
Ordinary Africans invited or sponsored to attend major international conferences in the West have often suffered arbitrary and hard-to-explain visa refusals. For East Africans interested in visiting the United States of America for tourism purposes, which is where conferences would fall, one would need more than a year before they can even schedule a visa interview.
For some years Ugandans interested in visiting the United Kingdom would have to send their passports to South Africa. At some point, some Ugandans even lost their passports in this process. Ugandans must also spend exorbitant amounts to send their passports to Dar es Salam in Tanzania for Canadian visas, while many European embassies require a physical presence in Nairobi, Kenya before one can access a visa.
The harsh visa regimes are such that many universities in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States of America would often schedule conferences in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and in Belgium when it was necessary to be in Europe.
Western countries appear to have now ramped out on their mistreatment of people who carry passports from African countries, as these actions are now targeting black and brown persons that are in very important international positions.
Dr. Ahmed Ogwell, the Acting Executive Officer at the Africa Centre for Disease control is one of the senior African officials who in the last few months experienced the wrath of the immigration departments of Western governments. In mid-October, he failed to attend the World Health Summit in Berlin, after he was mistreated in Frankfurt.
He announced his decision to return home and give up on the World Health Summit via Twitter saying that from then onwards he would only visit countries that are not hostile to his African passport, as he had a similar experience from a month earlier when he was on his way to attend the International Aerosol Conference in Athens, Greece.
“I have been mistreated at @Airport_FRA by immigration personnel who imagine I want to stay back illegally. My attendance at the @WorldHealthSmt is now in doubt. I am happier & safer back home in Africa. They invite you then mistreat you,” he tweeted.
He later tweeted his arrival back home in Africa before the start of the Summit hosted by the World Health Organization and the German government.
Before Dr. Ogwell, it was the Ugandan-born UNAIDS Executive Director who was almost blocked from flying to Montreal in Canada, for a conference she was convening. She too announced via Twitter that she was the last to board a Canada-bound plane from Geneva because of her African passport.
She added that several Africans had failed to make it to the HIV/AIDS conference that took place mid-this year because of visa and passport discrimination.
To avoid these visa inconveniences some opinion leaders in Africa have been saying that Western governments should stop bidding to host these international conferences, as their visa regimes are too harsh.
With Columbia joining the fray to deny visas, while their population experience similar maltreatment at the hands of most Western governments, it now seems that a few African countries might be the only viable hosts for international conferences.