This morning, WordCamp Europe 2017 organizers published an open letter to Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, regarding attendees being denied visas for the event. According to the rejections attendees have received, France is denying the visas because the ticket price for the conference is too low:
It has come to our attention that our friends from some countries are having problems with their Visas being rejected on the ground that “a 40€ entry fee cannot justify international travel”, something that makes this conference accessible to all. We are sad this is happening because now — for the first time in WordCamp Europe history — our inclusiveness is a burden we are carrying.
The open letter explains the WordCamp tradition of keeping ticket prices low to make it more inclusive for all income levels.
WCEU Communications Lead Emanuel Blagonic estimates that five people from India that have already been denied visas but said more attendees and contributors will be taking their interviews in the coming days.
“We didn’t write it to get an official response, as it is an open letter, but we hope to send the message about the importance of being inclusive and accessible – what WordCamps are, mainly because of the small ticket price,” Blagonic said. “We hope this letter will help officials understand that.”
Despite the innocuous nature of WordCamps, obtaining visas to attend these events is a perennial struggle for attendees coming from nations that have strained relations, security concerns, or other issues with the host country. Petya Raykovska, who helped organize last year’s WordCamp Europe in Vienna, said that Pakistan was the country from which the most people were declined visas. This year she has already seen several members of the Polyglots contributor team denied visas for the community summit.
“Both the WCEU and WCUS teams go above and beyond to help people get to the camp,” Raykovska said. “The WCEU team has been doing that for years, writing invitation letters in formats required by the embassies for each of the different countries.”
Unfortunately, the letters don’t always make enough of an impact. Chirag Patel, a core contributor and editor of the Gujarati translation, was denied a visa coming from India. He expressed disappointment and said he hates the visa process.
“I am a volunteer and was selected for the WCEU Summit as well but I am not able to get a visa,” Patel said. “It is so frustrating.”
Patel is re-applying with a new invitation letter and WordCamp contact details, but cannot make his travel arrangements until he is approved. This has resulted in a significantly higher cost for the trip. Patel said if it were not for his company supporting him, he would not be able to afford the increase in cost.
Andrey Savchenko, a WordPress contributor living in Ukraine, is no stranger to visa denial but is fortunate to have a five year visa to the Shengen area to attend WCEU this year. When attending WCEU in Seville in 2015, his invitation from the organizers was lost twice in the mail and he received a visa a mere five days before the event.
“That added around $400 to the cost of my flights,” Savchenko said. “Also, due to the short term visa, I could not even fly home from Seville. I had to take the train to Madrid and fly from there, to be out of country before my visa expired the day after the WordCamp.”
Savchenko was denied a visa to the U.S. for the first community summit in 2012. He described the interview in a post titled “The world with borders:”
My thin folder stays closed through all of it. My home, the one location in the world I care deeply about, is nothing. My savings, which fuel slim hope I will be able to live in a way different from paycheck-to-paycheck one day, are of no interest – all are disposable and meaningless on their scale against the chance of me “escaping” to their country.
I get back my passport and a boilerplate response letter from thick pile of printouts. It thoroughly explains that I failed to display considerable attachments and am thus guilty of trying to sneak into and stay in United States illegally by default. I feel curiously powerless – no loopholes to find, no leverage to apply, no help to call for, no proof that matters.
They spend ten minutes of their time (split about evenly between security, taking my fingerprints and interview itself) for which they charge $170. The following evening I spend much longer on Twitter, telling many people I won’t meet them and accepting their bitter disappointment.
Lead organizer Paolo Belcastro said the team has received approximately 60 requests for invitation letters, which accounts for roughly 2% of expected attendees. Although there have been only a handful of visa denials so far, many have yet to interview. Belcastro said the team penned the letter based on the feedback of a few while they still have a chance to help them.
“I think the worst about [the interview process] is how helpless it makes you feel,” Savchenko said. “Someone gets to make a judgement about you as a person and you get to pay to be called untrustworthy and unwelcome.”
For WordCamp attendees who have never had to jump through the hoops of a visa application, it’s important to remember that events held in major U.S. or European cities will always be missing the faces of valuable contributors who were unable to obtain a visa. Situations like these underscore the reality that virtual, online events, while lacking in much of the excitement and interpersonal connection, are by far the most inclusive way to gather and pass on information.
WCEU organizers said they hope the President of France can help “unblock the situation” for the remaining attendees who are still going through the visa application process. Belcastro said the chances of the open letter being read by anyone with the power of changing anything are small, especially since the French government went through a major change last week.
“It’s important to note that we have no wish to ask for any special treatment,” Belcastro said. “It’s not about asking for automatic approval of visas for our attendees, as there are many other criteria involved that we totally respect.
“Our wish is to underline that the value of a conference can’t be measured by the price of its entry ticket – the same way the value of WordPress can’t be measured by its price tag.”