Canada Refuses Visas to Over a Dozen African AI Researchers

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For the second year in a row, Canada has refused visas to dozens of researchers – most of them from Africa – who were hoping to attend an artificial intelligence (AI) conference in Vancouver. The hassles have caused at least one other AI conference to choose a different country for their next event.

The Neural Information Processing Systems conference (NeurIPS), which brings together thousands of experts and researchers from all over the world, will be held in Vancouver next month.

Last week, NeurIPS began hearing that several attendees had had their visas denied.

It was the second year in a row the conference has had visa troubles. In 2018, when the conference was held in Montreal, more than 100 attendees were denied visas.

The issue prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to defend Canada’s immigration system during the G7.

“I can assure you that Canada is world-class in the way that it approves visas and encourages people from around the world to come participate in important global conversations like these,” he told Wired Magazine at the G7 in 2018.

NeurIPS said that because denials are issued by embassies around the world, they are unsure how many people are affected. But organisers for the Black in AI workshop said that about 30 were initially denied, mostly from African countries.

“The importance cannot be overstressed,” Black in AI organiser Charles Onu told the BBC. “It’s more and more important for AI to build a diverse body.”

After the issue was raised to the government by NeurIps, and 15 of the 30 denials have since been overturned, Mr Onu said.

About 20 are still pending, and 86 have been approved.

“It is imperative that all voices be heard at NeurIPS to enable future success in the field of AI,” said Katherine Heller, a professor at Duke University and the event’s diversity and inclusion co-chair. “We are opposed to any attempt to impede progress made by our international community.”

A spokesperson for the ministry of immigration told the BBC they had been working with conference organisers since May to try and make the visa application process as smooth as possible.

“While we cannot comment on the admissibility of any particular individual, we can say that, in general, all visitors to Canada must meet the requirements for temporary residence in Canada, as set out in Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act,” the ministry said in an email.

The ministry said the applicant must demonstrate that they will “leave Canada when their visa expires”. The ministry looks at factors such as the applicant’s ties to their home country, the purpose of the visit, the person’s family and economic situation, and the overall economic and political stability of their home country.

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