Report Back on RightsCon Community Calls: Mitigating Barriers to Travel
We are excited to share the third installment of report backs from our community consultation calls! (Read more about our report backs on community support and the RightsCon program) This report provides a summary of discussions focused on mitigating barriers to travel to RightsCon. We are deeply grateful to members of the RightsCon community who generously shared their experiences and insights to inform our planning for RightsCon South Korea.
Purpose of the calls
In the open letter we published in August 2023, we reflected on our responsibility as event organizers to anticipate and work to mitigate the barriers that people, especially those from the Global Majority, face as they move through the process of participating in RightsCon. This includes recognizing the ways in which discriminatory passport and visa systems persistently uphold inequality and deny freedom of movement to our communities, as well as the tremendous physical, financial, and emotional toll that planning for travel and crossing borders can take on individuals, especially those who reside at the intersections of multiple forms of marginalization.
Between November 1 and 15, we hosted five consultation calls across different regions, with the goal of finding out more about visa and travel-related concerns participants have about getting to RightsCon South Korea in February 2025, and what we can do to proactively address and mitigate such challenges. Hosting these calls was an important way for us to learn about participants’ lived experiences when applying for visas and crossing borders, including previous experiences in applying for a visa to South Korea. We also discussed strategies and practices that other conveners have deployed that have made participants feel safe and supported traveling to and from their events, so we can continue doing the work and investing the resources needed to have more equitable access to our summit.
From our initial research using the Passport Index, nationals of 86 countries would require a visa to enter South Korea for the purpose of attending a summit such as RightsCon. Participants that require a visa would have to apply for a Short-term General C-3-1 visa, as South Korea’s policy does not offer a conference-specific visa or visa-on-arrival process.
During the consultation calls, participants expressed concerns and shared their lived experiences related to visa applications for attending conferences. These challenges take many shapes and forms, depending on specific contexts, but they are experienced in every region of the world, regardless of the location where we invite our global communities to gather.
Participants highlighted issues like unclear application guidelines, excessive documentation requirements, prolonged processing times, the absence of diplomatic missions within their country of residence, and discrimination at embassies based on one’s nationality, ethnicity, race and/or gender. This often includes arbitrary denials of visas without any reasons stated. Additionally, many noted that event organizers often add to the stress by not providing participants with enough lead time for visa applications and travel planning after confirmation of the participant’s role in the event, which also leads to increased costs for flights and accommodation.
Beyond the planning process, participants also mentioned stressors during travel such as the unexpected need to obtain relevant transit visas (often with limited support from organizers) and experiences of harassment at immigration checkpoints.
Insights from the community
While it was incredibly sobering to learn about the various harms that members of the RightsCon community have experienced over the years, it was energizing to come together and strategize ways in which we can provide more effective support in traveling and crossing borders safely and with dignity. During the calls, we were conscious about deferring to the leadership of those directly impacted by passport discrimination, visa inequity and border violence, and listened actively to strategies and practices which they have personally found helpful.
These are some of the specific suggestions that participants made during our discussion:
Support with visa applications and travel planning
- Release information on key decisions, such as Call for Proposals notifications and Community Support Fund application decisions, at least 3-4 months before the summit to allow participants more time for visa applications, and to potentially reduce travel costs
- Hire an external travel consultant or visa support company to pre-empt issues participants might face with visa applications, travel, and immigration, specific to region and country
- Utilize the RightsCon website as a centralized place to provide guidance on:
- Visa category, application process, and documentation requirements
- Republic of Korea diplomatic missions and jurisdictions (i.e. at which embassies or consulates can different passport-holders apply for visas)
- Visa exemptions
- (If applicable) transit visa requirements and exemptions
- Alternative ways to apply for visas for those who without Republic of Korea diplomatic missions in their city or country of residence
- Hotels and accommodation options near the summit venue
- Suitable airports in South Korea
- Transit routes from airports to hotels
- Local transportation, including options for disability-specific transportation assistance
- Local currency
- Tips on navigating the local culture and context
- Provide support with documentation required for visa applications, such as issuing invitation letters and letters of support
- Provide specific and targeted support for visa applications to participants who may experience passport discrimination and visa inequity, including those who are living in asylum, are refugees or stateless, hold temporary passports or informal travel documents, are located in conflict zones, or those who face criminalization due to the nature of their work
- Support with specific and targeted follow-up actions for participants whose visas are arbitrarily denied, advocating for a reversal of the decision or an appeals process, as deemed necessary by the participant
- Provide specific support in planning safe travel routes for participants who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color)
- Provide templates students and employees can use to seek permission to attend RightsCon from their universities and employers respectively
Engaging with key stakeholders
- Engage with Republic of Korea diplomatic missions to ensure smoother visa processes for participants
- Develop partnerships with the government of the Republic of Korea, and obtain their support to facilitate the visa process for participants
- Partner with a local host organization in South Korea to issue invitation letters for visa applications
- Build meaningful relationships with civil society in South Korea to get a better understanding of the local context, navigating risks, and leveraging RightsCon as a space to advance their work and amplify issues of importance
Expanding travel funding
- Dedicate more financial resources to our Community Support Fund
- Expand the scope of the Community Support Fund to cover visa-related expenses
- Revise the criteria of the Community Support Fund to prioritize applicants from the Global Majority as well as those who were not able to attend RightsCon Costa Rica due to the failure of the visa-on-arrival process
- Continue providing transparency around the distribution of the Community Support Fund, including the number of applications received, the number of recipients, and breakdowns by gender and region
- Provide guidance on alternative sources of funding that participants can consider
Note: The report-back from our consultation calls specifically focused on community support can be found here.
Building safety practices during travel
- Continue having specific points of contact from the RightsCon team to regularly check-in with participants in transit, and escalate if necessary
- Establish protocols and response processes to assist participants during their journeys
- Connect those flying from the same country or with the same transit stops so that participants can coordinate their travel together
- Provide specific support to people from marginalized communities, such as participants who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) as well as trans and gender diverse folk, in navigating immigration, with specific protocols in place in case of profiling and harassment
- Provide guidance to participants on their rights when navigating immigration
- Have a helpdesk at the airport in South Korea
- Build an ecosystem of local contacts, including immigration experts and lawyers with experience in supporting marginalized communities, to support with incidents and escalations at immigration
- Create channels for seeking psychosocial support for both in-person and online participants throughout the summit
Beyond the suggestions above, participants reiterated the importance of elevating the voices of the Global Majority at RightsCon, emphasizing that meaningful inclusion of marginalized communities requires continuous work as well as an investment into resources.
As global conveners, it is our responsibility to provide members of the community with support as they navigate passport and visa systems, and to build safety practices around travel and border crossings, in order to reduce the burden on the individual. Doing the work and investing the resources needed to have more equitable access to the spaces where we gather has to be a priority, not an afterthought.
We know that we are not the only convener grappling with the issues of increasing access and inclusion to our summit. As such, we have begun working with other event organizers who are similarly seeking out ways to ensure the meaningful participation of the Global Majority in their spaces, and will continue to strategize with them and share our learnings.
Over the next few months, we will further map out our visa and travel support strategies as part of our larger model of community support, and will communicate transparently about the steps we will be taking, within the limited resources we have as an NGO, as well as steps we are unable to move forward with at this moment. We remain dedicated to providing effective support to the community as well as building safety practices around travel and border crossings to minimize the harm perpetuated by unjust visa and passport systems.
Once again, our sincere thanks go out to everyone who contributed to these conversations, and who have been valuable thought partners as we collectively take on these big challenges. If you were unable to attend the calls and would like to share any reflections on how we can better mitigate barriers to travel, please feel free to reach out to us anytime via email at [email protected].
Reetz, Daphne, and the RightsCon team