World Federation of Science Journalists

From Yaoundé, Cameroon to Rabat, Morocco by way of Casablanca …

February 2, 2009

… and then back to Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, to the French embassy there for a transit visa.

Our traveller, Christophe Mvondo, works for La Nouvelle Expression in Yaoundé, Cameroon. One of eight reporters sponsored by WFSJ, he was headed to the EcoHealth Forum in Merida Mexico. He needed the French visa so he could legally sit around in the international sector of Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris waiting for his flight to Mexico.

He finally made it to Merida and spent seven days there in early December.

Getting the visas ahead of time took much, much longer.

“I spent one month to do those formalities for visas,” Mvondo says. “I abandoned my work for the week I had to spend in Morocco before travelling home again to get the French visa. So I spent more days to get a visa in Morocco than the number of days I spent in Merida.”

A week in Morocco? Yes – there’s only one flight a week between Yaoundé and Casablanca. And you can’t fly there, take the train from Casablanca to Rabat, and get your visa from the embassy in the capital in time for the return flight.

Christophe Mvondo travel to Merida

And before Morocco, there was the wasted month as WFSJ staff tried to track down Mexico’s unlisted embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, the country bordering Cameroon to the north. It was a month of unanswered phone calls and e-mails, and a misleading address (the “embassy” turned out to be an office in the Spanish embassy in Abuja).

In all, Mvondo’s visa quest cost WFSJ close to $3,000 in per diems for hotels and meals to cover part of his personal expenses.

Pauline Degen, who looks after travel in WFSJ headquarters, says Mvondo’s story is not unusual. She knows all about the costs for cancelled airline tickets when journalists cannot jump through the visa hoops in time.

“I pray that our journalists will have embassies [to their eventual destination] in their own country,” Degen says. But there was no Mexican embassy for Christophe in Cameroon. In all of Africa, there are only four Mexican embassies that can issue visas – in South Africa, Egypt, Kenya and Morocco.

In all, Mvondo had to get four visas to attend the conference – from Mexico (his destination), from Nigeria (where the embassy didn’t grant visas), to Morocco (where he finally got a Mexican visa) and from France (to be there legally in transit).
Christophe Mvondo in Merida, Mexico

Journalists from poorer countries are facing increasing difficulties and costs – Mvondo’s Moroccan visa cost USD$40; the French visa cost €60 – as they try to attend conferences, workshops or conventions abroad.

These difficulties go back far beyond 2001 when the international community started to respond to threats of terrorism. “Remember that anyone could – and still can – step off a plane and ask for refugee status,” says Gar Pardy, a retired senior official from Canada’s foreign affairs department.

“A number of delegates from Africa coming to an AIDS conference in Canada a couple of years ago had trouble getting in because of this fear,” Pardy says.

“The International Civil Aviation Organization attempted many years ago to make it easier for people to travel the world,” he says, but, “those attitudes have long ago fallen by the wayside.”

During 2008, WFSJ was involved in moving about 125 journalists around the world, some to Canada (for the Amundsen voyage), others to Doha, Merida and Barcelona. The Merida conference was just more of the same challenge of getting journalists legally across borders.

For Degen and the WFSJ, unanticipated delays and barriers often mean airline reservations have to be changed – at great cost – at the last minute.

Similar visa hurdles hampered delegates to a UN climate change conference in Poznan, Poland organized by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

“Two couldn’t make it as they couldn’t get visas in time, and many others had big struggles to get their visas, with some coming late,” to that December conference according to IIED organizer Mike Shanahan in London. Those blocked were usually from tropical countries most affected by climate change.