Visa applicants from Africa have more difficulty securing permission to visit Canada than do travellers from any other continent, and that has some asking whether the system is discriminatory.
A temporary resident visa (TRV), often referred to as a visitor visa, gives travellers temporary admission to Canada, though people coming to work or study may need separate permits.
According to an analysis of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) data obtained by CBC News through access to information, the TRV approval rate for African applicants fell by 18.4 per cent between 2015 and 2018.
At the end of the day, it starts to feel like institutional racism. - Akintayo Jabar, rejected visa applicant
Over the same period, the approval rate for applicants from the Asia-Pacific region fell 7.3 per cent; for applicants from the Middle East, it fell by 10.3 per cent; it dropped just .7 per cent for applicants from Latin America and the Caribbean; and for European applicants, the approval rate rose 4.4 percent.
Worldwide, the average TRV approval rate dropped 13.6 percent, but the number of applicants has also risen over that four-year period, so overall, more visitors were admitted. Canadian academics have complained about the difficulty African scholars and researchers have had obtaining temporary resident visas to travel to Canada for conferences.
'It makes no sense'
This year, about one-third of participants needing visas to attend the Black in AI workshop at the annual Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS) in Vancouver have had their applications denied. It's an issue organizers say started last year when the conference moved from the U.S. to Canada.
Nigerian researcher Tejumade Afonja, 25, was planning to attend the NeurIPS 2018 conference in Montreal last year, but her temporary visa application was rejected based on her travel history, employment situation and financial status.
Afonja said while at the time she hadn't travelled widely, she did have a good job as an AI software engineer with an international company that helped sponsor the workshop at last year's conference.
"What I was being paid was a lot more than what an average Nigerian my age would be earning," Afonja said.
"It makes no sense to have these conferences, and we can't even have the people in the developing world attend," she said.
Afonja was also denied a visa this year, even though she helped coordinate the Machine Learning for the Developing World workshop at NeurIPS 2019. She said she's been denied a critical networking opportunity as a result. "You increase your reach [and] your visibility. You're able to connect. You're able to share your work," she said. "It's also important for diversity and inclusion ... to be part of a global conversation."
One of the organizers of the Black in AI workshop, Charles Onu, said the purpose of the session is to bring in voices that are often excluded. "This workshop was born out of the almost complete absence of black researchers in the field of AI," said Onu, the Mila researcher and McGill University PhD candidate. Onu said he's disappointed the visa problem has persisted. "We've invested so much time in raising funds from donors, foundations [and] companies to support African researchers who otherwise would not have the resources to travel to come here," he said. IRCC didn't provide CBC News with an explanation as to why African travellers fared worse than others in obtaining temporary resident visas, however in an email, a spokesperson wrote: "We are aware that a few [Black in AI] invitees' visa applications were refused and understand their disappointment. These decisions are made by highly trained officers who carefully and consistently assess each application equally against the same criteria, as laid out by Immigration, Refugees and Protection Act."
The Canadian Association of African Studies (CAAS) said it has "documented a pattern of continuing, discriminatory, and inconsistent treatment of visa applications made by academics from African countries."
"There seems to be a discriminatory bias against Africa-based scholars, or Africans writ large, in the existing visa system in Canada," said outgoing CAAS president Meredith Terretta.
Terretta said CAAS has had its own experience with several academics being denied visas to attend their association conference in both 2018 and 2019.
"That's concerning to us because freedom of mobility is really essential to scholarly knowledge exchange," she said. "Africa represents new frontiers of knowledge, and if we are in a country that styles itself as a major player in the information economy, we need to be able to see those scholarly exchanges facilitated by our government."
Applying for a temporary resident visa costs $100 Cdn and is non-refundable.
According to IRCC's data, while the approval rate for TRVs for travellers from African countries is trending down, the rates vary from country to country. The Nigerian approval rate dropped by 31 per cent, while the rate of approval for Kenyans and South Africans only decreased by seven per cent down. Mali bucked the continental trend, with the approval rate rising slightly over the four-year period.
Despite Nigeria's relatively low TRV approval rate, the country still accounts for a large number of visitors to Canada, with more than 14,000 visiting in 2018.
Akintayo Jabar was working as a software developer and data engineer in Nigeria in 2018 when his temporary resident visa application was denied to attend the Black in AI workshop.
The decision was based on his travel history, employment situation and financial status, reasons Jabar said he found surprising considering his trip was fully funded by a travel grant, and he had provided immigration officials with pay slips to demonstrate his income.
"At the end of the day, it starts to feel like institutional racism," he said.
Jabar said Canadian officials should take into account that workshop participants are carefully screened before being invited and awarded travel grants to attend the conference. "They've vetted these people. They've done some research ... they know that these people are doing their work and there's a track record for them," he said.
"If this trend with Canada continues, then we might as well not bother [applying] because you already know the answer." According to a spokesperson for IRCC, "there is absolutely no discrimination in [Canada's] visa assessment process."