Visa issues at COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal could stem from UN delays

OTTAWA — The COP15 conference on biodiversity loss is underway in Montreal, but hundreds of delegates from developing countries are missing out due to visa issues that could stem from the United Nations issuing late accreditations.

"It was pretty disappointing to get rejected," Pervez Aly, a prominent youth activist, said in an interview Wednesday from Pakistan.

"That was a sort of discouragement, and excruciating for us, I should say, because the voices of the Indigenous communities should be heard everywhere."

This past summer, the federal Immigration Department caused an uproar when it denied visas for multiple African delegates for the International AIDS Conference, also held in Montreal.

The department said it changed procedures to make sure this month's UN summit goes smoothly, such as issuing special codes for delegates to get fast-tracked visas.

"We've relaxed certain requirements because we wanted to make sure that kind of consequence didn’t happen again," Immigration Minister Sean Fraser told reporters Wednesday.

He added that visa officers have been asked to waive normal criteria such as the likelihood of an applicant to return home, or requirements about being able to support oneself while in Canada, since many delegates are being hosted by groups.

"We've worked very closely with the organizers to make sure that regardless of where an applicant comes from, we have the opportunity to give them a fair consideration."

But environmental organizations say people in developing countries are telling them they have been denied, or their applications are still being processed as the conference gets underway.

Rights and Resources Initiative, a coalition of groups focused on forestland and resource rights for Indigenous Peoples, has booked flights and hotels for roughly 15 delegates from the Global South, six of whom had visa issues.

"It's a humongous gap," said Graziela Tanaka, a strategist with the group.

All three Indonesian citizens associated with AMAN, a prominent alliance of Indigenous Peoples in Indonesia, had their visas denied. Delegates from India, Ecuador and the Democratic Republic of Congo had issues — one person got their visa Monday, at which point flights were prohibitively expensive, while the two others were still waiting for an answer as of Wednesday.

Tanaka said her group and partner organizations have had a range of responses from Canadian embassies and high commissions, with some responding promptly and others sitting on invitation letters for months.

Delegates from poorer, rural areas seemed to be most commonly denied, even when presenting letters that show their expenses had been covered.

"There's an underlying discriminatory process within these embassies," she said.

"The people that are getting denied the visas are people that live in territories that need to be protected. So for us it's not a great sign that they won't be represented in the negotiations."

She fears an overrepresentation in Montreal of companies that have pushed Indigenous Peoples from their lands, as well of conservationists who advocate for Indigenous Peoples to vacate protected areas.

"They are up against the most powerful forces, and that includes governments."

The Immigration Department says 95 per cent of those who applied by the Nov. 15 deadline got their visas. The department also said it has approved 3,162 of the 4,064 applications it had received as of Tuesday, including 674 that came after the deadline.

The department had expected roughly 6,000 applications by the deadline.

"Those who applied in a timely way have actually had an enormously successful experience," Fraser said.

But that doesn't wash with Aly, the Pakistani activist.

Aly received his invitation letter from conference organizers on Nov. 29, which asks on United Nations Environment Programme letterhead for the federal Immigration Department to help in "expediting and securing an entry visa to Canada, to allow participation in the meetings."

It lists him as the deputy Pakistan director for Friday for Future, and a member of the group Students Organising for Sustainability.

A spokesman for the UN Environment Programme did not immediately respond when asked why the visa letter came so late.

The Immigration Department noted that it normally requires international events to be registered six months in advance, but the United Nations had only registered less than five months before the conference kickoff.

"We are committed to the fair and non-discriminatory application of immigration procedures," wrote spokesman Stuart Isherwood.

"We take this responsibility seriously, and officers are trained to assess applications equally against the same criteria."

The department said it lined up extra staff to process thousands of last-minute visa applications, flagged issues with specific visa applications to COP15 organizers, had the Canada Border Services Agency expedite security screening, and exempted delegates from the fees for thumbprint scans and processing.

It pointed to notices published online and sent to diplomatic missions, which urged people to apply for visas by Nov. 10.

Aly fears the bureaucracy will keep him from telling delegates that the catastrophic flooding in Pakistan this year is not just killing people, but also putting species at risk.

"It's just eradicating our biodiversity," he said.

In rural areas, people are cutting trees to burn for heating, which has exacerbated the endangerment of flora. Glaciers are melting, putting his country at further risk of floods.

Aly identifies as part of the Gilgiti minority, and was displaced from his northern region of Pakistan after flash floods in 2010 and again in 2015.

The 19-year-old was Pakistan's youth delegate to the UN climate conference summit last month in Egypt, which granted him a visa three days after he applied.

He used that letter to apply for a visa online and tried phoning and emailing Canada's high commission in Islamabad, which is in an enclave the public cannot visit without an appointment.

Aly says the online system showed that his visa will take three months to issue, and the high commission told him his application doesn't meet the grounds for an urgent processing.

He's holding out hope that the visa will be approved this week, which might allow him to reach Montreal for the second week of the conference.

"Even the UN is working for people, but nobody is working for the animals, or the species and the plants which are going to go extinct because of the climate crisis and the heavy rainfalls and the heat waves," Aly said.

"I wanted to inform the global community, to take notice of this."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2022.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press