16th World Conference on Tobacco or Health: regional delegates refused visas

Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

(Editor update: at the time of this post being published, we were able to confirm 38 delegates had been refused visas. The organisers subsequently issued a statement with an estimate that approximately 60 delegates were refused visas. To read the statement click here.) 

Every three years, the world tobacco control community convenes for a world conference to hear the latest research, discuss strategy and train young researchers and advocates in how to get potent legislation adopted by governments. There have been 15 conferences since the 1967 meeting in New York, opened by Robert Kennedy.

This week the 16th is running in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. The host countries are selected by a panel of leading international agencies and past conference hosts. There has never been a conference in the Middle East and with heavy smoking rates among men in particular, and generally immature tobacco control policies in place, a strong case weighed heavily in the voting for this weeks’ gathering.

One argument was that the conference would provide a global stage for regional leaders to make announcements about how the Middle East was moving ahead in tobacco control. Another was that the meeting would inspire regional delegates and help them network with global leaders.

The three day conference started on the 17th and as I write, at least 38 registered delegates we know of, many whose presentations had been accepted by the conference and some who were to chair sessions, are still waiting for their visas to be issued.  These are from Bangladesh (29), Iraq, Tunisia, Nigeria and Syria. They have a combined experience of  over 200 years in tobacco control.

This email is typical of the anguished emails we have seen or received directly:

I am writing to you in a situation when I am waiting at a friend’s house, packed up all my bags and posters for presentation and checking email every 6 secs.

I was invited as a speaker for sessions to be held today and tomorrow at the WCTOH. With a full scholarship I was assured about participation and thence I cleared all my appointments for these days.

I live in a distant town, 120 km away from the airport, and when I was leaving my house, my only daughter (8 months old) was sick and this stress was increased when I was waiting at the airport yesterday for hours with an expectation that I will get a visa.

Before that, I had to cancel my flight and it was so uncertain that I have never had such a thing in my travel history. Further, I couldn’t stop myself writing to the logistics people and got a little number of responses in the last few days.

The thing is I have never had the chance to show my travel history and I have two USA visas including one multiple entry valid for several years. I also have visas from Singapore, Malaysia, Turkey, Netherlands, Germany, Japan, China, Indonesia and South Africa on the same passport.

This is seriously awful when I have prepared  my speech and I have not yet  got the visa to fly. With my 12 years of  professional career I got opportunities to lead a number of  platforms on health and tobacco control. [lists his international experience]

However this experience has made my disappointment so terrific that I am truly faded up on choosing a country which doesn’t respect the professionals, experts and researchers who are leading people’s health and well-being issues in this region and worldwide.

Today is the last day when I am waiting for a visa and if I don’t get this by 3PM UAE time, I will surely miss my speech. So I may not go at all to this conference if it is not today.”

A Facebook page set up by a high ranking UAE public health official to facilitate  pre-conference discussions and news transfer was suddenly switched to secret status on Monday and later closed down.

The same person had earlier responded to frustration from delegates still waiting for their visas: “UAE hosts sponsored 400 scholars from low and middle income countries. Some are still awaiting visas and it elicits abuse of the hosts. “No good deed goes unpunished.” This is a small developing country that faces manpower challenges. Yes. The delays for a few have been long and disruptive. I am sorry for that. Thousands of others will enter without hindrance. Hopefully all who want to attend will be admitted and they will enjoy the conference in safety.”

This ‘small developing country’ has the world’s 7th highest GDP per capita.

Prof Wasim Maziak is a Syrian now working in the USA and a distinguished tobacco control researcher. As a member of the conference Scientific Committee he has withdrawn in protest from the Conference. Maziak was a key organizer of the largest collection of research yet assembled on health aspects of waterpipe use, published open access in Tobacco Control in time for the conference. Waterpipe is a major public health problem in the Middle East in particular.

He wrote to us:

I have since years been conducting regular training opportunities for researchers in the Middle East and have established last year a seed grants program (funded by my grant from NIH) to junior tobacco control researchers in the region. I gave 6 of these grants, and I organized a symposium at WCTOH for them, and sponsored them to attend in order present their data from the seed grants for the first time.
Three out of six participants in my symposium were denied visa (Syria, Iraq, Tunsia). Needless to say that these young researchers are devastated because they had such great hope to be on such international theater.
I have been warning the organizers for more than a year about this issue, because I know that UAE has discriminatory visa policy, but finally I had to make a stand being a member of the Scientific Committee in hope to elicit some actions to help denied participants” .
I was very enthusiastic that the conference came to the region, thinking that it will boost tobacco control in a region in much need for that. My disappointment is utter.”

The Abu Dhabi conference is the first that I have missed since the 5th meeting in Winnipeg, Canada in 1983. I had no expectation of what has now happened. I am very glad I did not attend and hope the international organisers will be highly critical of what has happened, apologise to those excluded and  ensure that all their expenses are met.

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