Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work, Florida International University, Miami, Florida
Two years ago, I was invited to serve on the scientific committee for the 16th World Conference for Tobacco or Health (WCTOH). I was particularly happy to serve, since this was the first time such an important event was planned in the Middle East, where most of my career has been focused. Over the past decade, several colleagues and I were greatly involved in initiatives aiming at seeding tobacco control research and training of tobacco control professionals from the region, with support from the US National Institute of Health.
The decision to hold the 16th WCTOH in Abu Dhabi (UAE) was only good news for me; a homecoming of years of efforts to seed science and evidence-based tobacco control principles in the Middle East. To build momentum, we started planning events that combine research and capacity building for tobacco control in the region, with conferences held in Abu Dhabi in 2013 and Qatar in 2014. We supported regional researchers to attend these conferences and conducted special research training workshops for junior researchers from the Middle East. This was complemented by a seed-grant program, for pilot studies in tobacco control in different countries in the region. Given the great opportunity presented by WCTOH for those grantees, we organized a special symposium during the WCTOH for our seed grantees to present their research results. This was really going well all around, and personally I was looking forward to a highlight of my career efforts in the region.
My excitement withered as the conference drew closer, when I started receiving worried messages from researchers in the region about a delay in their visa and travel arrangements. It became clear certain countries, not individuals, were the focus of visa denials. These were Syria, Iraq, Tunisia, and Bangladesh. I had a flashback from a year earlier, as I and my wife preparing for the 2014 waterpipe conference in Abu Dhabi, when her visa was denied while I had no problem. My wife is a tobacco control researcher from the University of Miami, and has years of work in tobacco control in the region. The only difference between us is that I had couple of months before received my new US citizenship, while she was still a permanent residence awaiting her citizenship and had to travel with her Syrian passport. When I brought this issue to the attention of one of the WCTOH organizers and warned about its grave potential for the WCTOH, he kept brushing the issue aside as of no concern.
Eventually, about 60 conference participants were denied entry to UAE, including 3 out of 6 participants in my symposium for young researchers in the region (Syria, Iraq, Tunisia). The conference organizers issued a statement that such denial is to be expected, and that it is actually less than previous similar occasions. However, I expect that in most similar occasions in the past visa denial was based on a case by case consideration not nationality, since I travelled to all of them since 2000 on my “cursed” Syrian passport. Still, I would have accepted this as related to the country’s policy with little that one can do about it. The main problem here is that the policy was well known to the local organizers based on previous experience, such as mine, but it was kept hidden from both the international organizing committee and conference participants. In the words of one of the conference Chairs, the local organizers assured everybody that “bona fide delegates would be allowed to enter the country”.
The largest delegation denied visas came from Bangladesh, one of the most active countries in Asia in tobacco control. It is also the home of second largest migrant working population in UAE, and has a lot to do with the construction and development boom of UAE, mostly under appalling conditions. What is worse is that the local organizers kept all participants from “shady” countries waiting even as the conference started (sometimes spending more than a day in the airport or with friends waiting for news) without telling them to go home based on what they knew of the extreme unlikelihood that they will receive a visa. Even two weeks after the conference, no official apology or responsibility declaration has been issued by any of the bodies related to the organization of WCTOH. This is unheard of from a community like ours that aspires to the highest moral values and respect for human dignity.
Tobacco control has been the cause of my life and career. Having a strong tobacco control community and successful international gatherings is vital for international cooperation and collaboration. If we remain silent about such mishandlings we risk repeating them or becoming accomplices in them. This is why I think such an incident requires a clear response from the organizers, and calls on us as community to create a better process for selecting host countries and organizing future World Conferences. Much more say in such decisions should be given to tobacco control activists from developing countries, who are at most risk of being refused visas, to ensure they have the opportunity for full participation.