Monday, August 20, 2007

Canada Denies Visas to Burmese Groups

By The Irrawaddy

August 17, 2007

Burmese living in Bangladesh, Japan, India and Thailand are facing difficulties obtaining temporary visas to attend a Burmese policy conference in Ottawa, according to the conference organizer.

The Burma policy consultation conference which will be held August 29 to 30 in Ottawa is in jeopardy as many Burmese working on human rights, democracy, labor and women's issues in countries in Asia were invited to attend but might be denied entry to the country.

Around 25 prominent Burmese working to restore democracy in Burma were invited. Two Burmese who are former members of the Communist Party of Burma and who now reside in China were also invited. It is unknown whether they will be allowed to leave China.

The conference organizer told The Irrawaddy that Canadian members of parliament, officials from Foreign Affairs Canada, ambassadors to Canada, representatives of Canadian civil society organizations, representatives from Canadian Burmese communities and pro-democracy organizations in Canada will also attend the conference.

Conference organizers have sent appeal letters to Canadian officials to intervene. So far only two Burmese have been granted visa.

Tin Maung Htoo, the conference organizer and executive director of Canadian Friends of Burma based in Ottawa, told The Irrawaddy that Canada’s visa application process is extremely inflexible and difficult.

The process is "unreasonably stringent for some applicants, in this case Burmese citizens and other citizens we invited," he said. "Even compared to the United States, Australia and European countries."

"This is very unfortunate and an apparent contradiction to what Canada proudly claims to be strong support of the Burmese democratic movement.”

Canadian aid organizations such as Canada Fund and the Canadian International Development Agency support Burmese refugees and Burmese groups along the Thai-Burmese border.

Last year, Dr Cynthia Maung, a Karen doctor who has won international humanitarian awards and was featured as an "Asia Hero" in Time magazine, was denied a visa at the Canadian embassy in America. Thanks to the intervention of Canada’s immigration minister, she was finally allowed in. Her Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot receives assistance from CIDA.

According to Tin Maung Htoo, when Burmese applied for visas at Canadian embassies in Asia, a number of impolite incidents occurred.

He said that he sent an appeal letter to Stockwell Day, the minister for public safety in Canada, on August 15.

In the letter obtained by The Irrawaddy, he said: “A number of our guests’ visa applications have been turned down by Canadian embassies in Thailand, Japan and Bangladesh. Such decisions made by immigration officers in Bangkok, Dhaka and Tokyo are in contradiction to the Government of Canada's stance in support of the Burmese democratic movement since 1988. Immigration officers do not seem to understand the complexity of the ongoing people’s struggle in Burma, as well as Canada’s staunch support.”

Similar appeals and requests for intervention were also sent to Diane Finley, Canada’s minister for immigration and citizenship.

According to senior members of CFOB and Burmese who were not granted visas in the past, Canadian immigration officials have stated that visas could not be issued to an individual who lived in another country without lawful permission. It is considered too high of a risk for Canada to issue visas to such applicants.

Tin Maung Htoo’s said the incident has offended the applicants. He said the CFOB repeatedly assured the embassies that the applicants' expenses and return tickets were taken care of, but the embassy staffs did not take the assurances seriously.

A CFOB member said Canadian immigration officials are concerned that Burmese who visit Canada will overstay in the country and won’t return to Burma or the countries where they are currently living.

A Burmese activist who lives in Mae Sot said he did not want to complain about the visa restrictions. However, he felt that his rights were violated.

“They (immigration officers) were not satisfied with many things, including my financial status and my travel history and background," he said.

In a related issue, an international women's conference scheduled to meet in September in Montreal has invited Burmese and Karen women to attend. They are also having problems obtaining visas.

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