Humanitarian groups say African visa difficulties hampering aid work

Humanitarian and non-profit organizations say the high number of Africans being refused visas to come to Canada is affecting their agencies' work, although Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told CBC News "there is absolutely no discrimination" in the visa assessment process.

Africa's 4-year visa approval rate lowest of any continent, CBC analysis shows

Action Against Hunger, the humanitarian organization this group in Ethiopia works for, says senior staff members in East Africa are being denied visas to Canada, hindering their work. (Supplied)

Humanitarian and non-profit organizations say the high number of Africans being refused visas to come to Canada is affecting their agencies' work. 

Applicants from Africa have more difficulty securing temporary resident visas compared to travellers from other parts of the world, according to an analysis of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) data obtained by CBC News through an access to information request.

While temporary resident visa approval rates fell worldwide between 2015 and 2018 by 13.6 per cent, visa approvals from African countries fell by 18.4 per cent — the lowest average approval rate of any region in the world.

In 2018, on average, just over half of all visa applications from Africa were approved. 

According to an analysis of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) data obtained by CBC News through access to information, the temporary resident visa approval rate for African applicants fell by 18.4 per cent between 2015 and 2018. (CBC)

Amnesty International's secretary general, Alex Neve, said his organization frequently deals with rejected visas.

He said it often happens when human rights leaders and grassroots activists from Africa and Latin America are invited to Canada for public speaking tours, to appear before parliamentary bodies or to sit in on government meetings. 

"These are individuals who, in many instances, have travelled the world frequently, have been to the United Nations to give addresses in front of UN bodies ... [have] open-ended visas for other countries that are still valid," he said.

"Nonetheless [they] are turned down summarily, arbitrarily — often with very little explanation."

Canada needs to conduct a careful study, he said, on how and why this is happening. 

'This is not happening to just us'

"It's become more pronounced in the last couple years," said Danny Glenwright, executive director of Action Against Hunger.

Glenwright said his organization has been forced to cancel a high-level meeting in Toronto next month because two senior staff members from Kenya and Ethiopia were denied visas.

"It means [additional] expenses for us, because we have to send staff now to them in Africa, when it was much cheaper to bring them here," he said.

"It means we can't accomplish our work. [And] in many cases that's humanitarian work funded by the Canadian government."

Danny Glenwright, executive director of Action Against Hunger, says his African colleagues are sometimes unable to attend critical meetings in Canada because they've been denied temporary resident visas. (Supplied)

Medical student 'confused' by denial

The Nobel Women's Initiative said its sister-to-sister mentorship program in Ottawa that's aimed at increasing advocacy training for women's rights activists was delayed by two weeks because four of six participants were denied temporary resident visas — three of them from Africa.

Areeg Abass, a medical student who works to educate women and girls about female genital mutilation, was one of them.

Abass only received her visa after the organization intervened on her behalf. She said the reason her document was denied — concerns she wouldn't return to her home country — left her "really frustrated."

Ottawa mentorship program delayed after participants' visas denied

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Featured VideoJoyce Diko and Areeg Abass both say having their visas denied was heartbreaking, interrupting plans that had been in progress for months. 

"I'm a medical student, I'm in my final year," she said. "So when I got the rejection emails saying that they're not convinced I'm going to come back to my home country after I finish the program, I was very confused."

Women's rights activist Joyce Diko also just arrived in Ottawa after her visa application was initially rejected.

 The South Sudan citizen had to travel to Kenya to apply for her admission to Canada. 

"It was overwhelming," she said. "The whole process was tedious."

Reapplying 'an uphill battle'

Ottawa-based immigration lawyer Jackie Bonisteel said when Canada rejects an African traveller's visa, it can influence whether they get visas to Canada in the future — and elsewhere.

"Applying again is an uphill battle, because the new [immigration] officer who looks at a second application is going to see that first refusal. And it can have a negative impact," she said.

"There's now information sharing between Canada and a lot of different countries, so a refusal in Canada could affect your ability to enter other countries."

Ottawa-based immigration lawyer Jackie Bonisteel says multiple Canadian visa rejections can influence whether African travellers get visas to other countries. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Bonisteel said she's seen many more cases where people meet all the visa requirements and are still being denied.

"They have proof that their stay is fully funded in Canada, that [they have] plenty of money, that they have a job to go back to in their home country, that there's no inadmissibility issue — and they're still seeing refusals," she said.

"That gives you a sense that there's ... this profiling going on, where certain candidates just aren't going to have a chance from the start."

In an email, IRCC told CBC News "there is absolutely no discrimination in [Canada's] visa assessment process."

While the visa approval rate has declined, due to the increased number of visa applicants, the overall number of African visitors to Canada has risen since 2015.