One day before the start of this year's edition of the World Social Forum (WSF 2016), to be held in Montreal from 9 – 14 August 2016, civil society representatives from several African nations have announced their intention to boycott the proceedings, due to the overwhelming number of visa denials for members of their delegations. Reports are coming in that participants from Latin America, Asia and the Middle East have been denied visas to travel to the international gathering as well.
After having carefully prepared their applications over the past year, travelled to sometimes distant Canadian embassies and consulates and paid fees to Canada, to the WSF organization (entry fees, site rental fees for their conferences or workshops, equipment charges, interpretation fees, and various other charges), as well as thousands in flight, hotel and other transport and accommodation costs, at least 234 community organization leaders and representatives were denied visitor visas to attend and give presentations at the international conference, including persons who were invited and had Canadian sponsors.
The World Social Forum was started in Brazil in 2001 as the "people's Davos," an alternative to the World Economic Forum held each year in Switzerland where the world's wealthiest industrialists get together and arguably decide the fate of the rest of the world. In 2007 the WSF opened up to the rest of the world, with an emphasis on giving voice to the Global South under the banner "Another world is possible."
This year's Forum adopted the slogan "Another world is necessary. Together it is possible". WSF2016 is the first World Social Forum to be held in a northern, western country. Now some are accusing Montreal organizers and the Government of Canada of the kind of institutionalized prejudice and injustice against non-Western peoples that is at the heart of the WSF's critique and reason for existence.
In the run-up to the event, would-be conference presenters and attendees were alerting Forum organizers that their letters of invitation, an essential part of the visa application process, had not been received. And then many others started to receive rejection notifications from the Canadian government.
While US attendees can enter Canada visa-free, the application process for nationals of other countries becomes increasingly more cumbersome. Europeans can apply online for an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) for a relatively modest $7 CAD fee, while someone from Bangladesh, for example, would need to submit biometrics (fingerprints and photo, $85 CAD) and make their application for a visa ($100 CAD fee) in person at a Canadian embassy or consulate. Once filed, the consideration process takes 30-90 days or more.
Preliminary responses to a questionnaire published on the WSF website show that 70% of visa applications have been refused by the Government of Canada, primarily on three grounds: previous foreign travel, insufficient financial means and likelihood to overstay the visa. On the other hand, Canada's immigration ministry claims to provide special assistance to organizing visas for large international conferences, such as the World Social Forum. Canada has outsourced its visa treatment process to private corporation VFS Global, founded in Mumbai but now based in Zurich.
Among those refused is UN Secretary General candidate Aminata Traoré, who was invited to speak at two of the Forum's major conferences on August 10. Other prominent persons whose visa applications were rejected include union leaders Rogério Batista of Brazil and Palestinian Imad Temiza. France's Centre for Research and Information on Development (CRID) issued a statement saying that "partners from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, Niger, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Côte d'Ivoire, for example, have had their rights to travel denied." Ayana Fleur from Congo, already in Montreal, said that 10 of her colleagues were refused and will not be joining her at the Forum.
Writing via skype, Djabi Jalo of the Pan-African Youth Organizations had this to say:
"Concerned with rectifying the injustice and discrimination of the WSF 2016 in Canada, African organisations demand that the WSF 2016 Montreal be indefinitely adjourned to another country that will be able to host participants and organisations from all countries in the world without distinction. Alternatively Africans should commit to launching an African Social Forum to compensate for their absence at the WSF 2016, which has become the G8 Social Forum. Because there can be no WSF without Africa. If there is, to use the term 'World' would be an abuse of the word."
Recalling the Forum's motto, Djabi continues, "'Another world is necessary. Together it becomes possible.' This other world once again is being constructed without Africa."
Many conferences, workshops, roundtables and other get-togethers at the World Social Forum 2016 Montreal will be streamed over the internet on YouTube and via En direct.
A petition calling upon the Canadian government to immediately rectify the situation can be signed here.