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Anger Grows Over Unequal Visa, Border Regimes

FILE - A Ghanaian woman poses while holding her family's passports with a U.S. visa in Accra, Ghana February 1, 2019.

LONDON — There’s growing anger over unequal visa and border regimes that limit Global South nationals' participation in international conferences tackling issues from climate change to economic systems and conflicts.

This comes as more than 300 participants were unable to attend a digital rights conference in Costa Rica due to visa issues, advocacy group, Access Now, said.

Kenyan Nanjala Nyabola, a board member at Access Now, said many Black and brown participants had been picked out and detained by Costa Rican border agents for periods of up to three hours. Some were later deported, she wrote on Twitter.

Nigerian lawyer Obioma Adesewa Okonkwo was booked to speak at the
"RightsCon" conference. She made sure to submit her visa application several months in advance, but as the date approached with no sign of her travel documents being granted, Okonkwo said she had no choice but to cancel her trip and contact organizers at Access Now to arrange to join online instead.

"If you have a summit that is global then you have to consider that there are people coming from countries who are regularly denied visas," said Okonkwo, a legal officer at Media Rights Agenda, which defends freedom of expression in Nigeria.

"I really wanted to learn from digital rights advocates from other continents ... I was shut out from participating in those kinds of discussions."

She said her visa application was eventually rejected.

Access Now, a global organization headquartered in New York, said authorities in Costa Rica had agreed to offer visas on arrival in the country for conference attendees, but border authorities did not uphold that arrangement.

It apologized to all those impacted, pledging to learn and make changes as a result.

"We have a responsibility to ensure that participants are seen and that their voices matter in these spaces," said Nikki Gladstone, RightsCon Director, in emailed comments to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It's our responsibility to anticipate and help mitigate the barriers participants will face."

She said the event is held in different countries each year in an effort to be more accessible, and they chose Costa Rica because they had never had the summit in Central America before.

The Costa Rican government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

"Visa Justice" Fights!

Critics say visa rules that are stricter for citizens of poorer nations are a significant factor limiting participation of people from developing countries in major conferences.

Ugandan climate activist Hamira Kobusingye said she often needs letters of recommendation to apply for visas to attend summits — a step not required of most Global North travelers.

Despite her efforts, she said she was denied visas to attend the Bonn Climate Change Conference in Germany in June and the United Nations 2023 Water Conference in New York.

"My colleagues all over the continent were denied visas," she said, adding that they were being distracted from their campaigning work by "visa justice" battles.

Kobusingye said she was told her applications did not meet the criteria for a visa.

A United States state department spokesperson said it "takes seriously its obligations as a host country of the U.N."

"Whenever an individual applies for a U.S. visa, a consular officer reviews the facts of the case and determines whether the applicant is eligible for that visa based on U.S. law," the spokesperson said in emailed comments.

Neither the German foreign office nor its embassy in Uganda responded to requests for comment.

Kobusingye said restricting access of grassroots campaigners meant major decisions could be made without much input from the people who are most affected.

Africa has been hit disproportionately hard by the fallout from climate change, while international efforts to secure funds for adaptation and recovery for heavily affected developing nations have fallen short.

"It seems like the Global North is trying to find solutions for the climate crisis without the people who are most affected," said Kobusingye.

"They can push through what they want because they have very little resistance."