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‘Is WYD for rich people only?’: Pilgrims in developing world denied visas

Junaid Javed, a Catholic living in Pakistan, was looking forward to his appointment Monday to collect a visa to travel to World Youth Day with his wife, Sunaina.

But to his dismay, the Portuguese embassy returned his passport without a visa July 24, making him one of a rising number of people prevented from traveling to Lisbon for the world’s largest Catholic youth event.

Junaid Javed and his wife, Sunaina, residents of the city of Sargodha in Pakistan. Courtesy photo.

Along with his passport, Javed received a Portuguese form with a box ticked indicating that the authorities considered the reasons presented for the trip to be unreliable. In other words, they were not convinced that he would return home following the Aug. 1-6 gathering. 

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In a video sent to The Pillar July 26, Javed  said that his wife had dreamed of receiving a blessing from Pope Francis as the couple married in 2017 but are yet to have children.

“She said that if we get the blessing from the pope, and we will see the pope, maybe God will bless us,” the 32-year-old from the city of Sargodha said. 

“She has faith that God will bless us.”

Javed explained that after hearing about World Youth Day, the couple gathered all the documents required for a visa application, despite the difficulty of doing so.

Visa decisions are made by representatives of the Portuguese government and are made separately from the registration process for World Youth Day (WYD), which is overseen by the WYD Lisbon 2023 Foundation.

Portugal, a member of the European Union and part of the border-free Schengen Area, has reinstated documentary border controls until the end of WYD, “to safeguard possible threats to public order and internal security” associated with a papal visit. Pope Francis is due to visit the country on Aug. 2-6.


Pilgrims have overstayed their visas at previous WYDs. Australian media reported that out of the 110,000 people who attended WYD in Sydney in July 2008, 550 did not return home. By September 2019, 280 pilgrims remained “on the run.” Most were from South Pacific countries including Tonga, Fiji and Samoa, with the remainder from India, Pakistan, and Vietnam.

Ahead of WYD in Madrid in 2011, the Spanish authorities suspended visas from Pakistan.

“Many people from this country have tried to stay in Europe after past WYD celebrations as illegal immigrants, that’s why the Spanish government has suspended the granting of visas,” a spokesman for the event’s organizers said at the time.

WYD Lisbon 2023’s official website says that the meeting is “aimed at pilgrims from all over the world between the ages of 14 and 30, but pilgrims of other ages are welcome to register.” It also explains that “it is the responsibility of each WYD participant to obtain a visa.” 

Each person who registers receives a personalized letter of confirmation, which is then signed by their diocesan bishop and forms the basis for their visa application. Javed’s registration document was signed by Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi.

In March, WYD organizers acknowledged that a group of 10 people with whom Javed and his wife intended to travel had paid the almost $2,500 contribution required for a package including accommodation, meals, transport, insurance, and a pilgrim kit. 

The group also donated more than $100 to a solidarity fund that covers the participation costs for “young people coming from less fortunate parts of the world.”

“We provided all the documents as they required, but they didn’t issue us a visa,” Javed said. “My question is why they didn’t issue us a visa. Because we are poor?” 

Portugal’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Pakistan was named the world’s seventh most difficult country in which to be a Christian by the advocacy group Open Doors in its World Watch List 2023. The organization said that the nation’s Christians — who comprise around 1.8% of the almost 250 million population — “are considered second-class citizens and face discrimination in every aspect of life.”

Javed, who has struggled financially since the coronavirus crisis, told The Pillar that he had two jobs, bringing in an income of around $90 a month.

He said he had heard that a small number of applicants from Pakistan who had stable, well-paying jobs had received visas.

“We don’t have much money … So that’s why they didn’t give us a visa. So is this event for rich people only? And what about the poor, what about us?” he asked.

“And if they want to do this with us, they should mention on the website that World Youth Day is for rich people only, so the poor people can’t apply and can’t waste their money and their time, their emotions.”

A sign welcoming pilgrims to World Youth Day 2023, in the Belém district of Lisbon, Portugal. GualdimG via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Reports of visa refusals have also emerged from Pakistan’s neighbor, India. 

Fr. Chetan Machado, an official at the youth secretariat of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India, said that applicants were “facing a lot of issues and many rejections this time.”

He noted that Portuguese embassy officials had asked for third parties to guarantee that the pilgrims would return home after WYD.

“That’s very difficult to get,” he told Crux.

The priest said that the Church recently asked the embassy to speed up the visa approval process and expressed hopes that 80% of the 900 registered Indian participants would be able to make the journey.

Over the border in Bangladesh, only 16 people out of a delegation of 23 people were granted visas, reported UCA News at the start of this month.

“There was no shortage of paperwork from our side,” said Fr. Bikash James Rebeiro. “Our applications were similar in every way and followed all the rules. But unfortunately, seven youths were denied visas.” 

The Philippines, which has the world’s third-largest Catholic population after Brazil and Mexico, is sending between 1,500 and 2,000 pilgrims to Lisbon. 

The country’s bishops’ conference said last week that it was appealing against the denial of visas to around 50 applicants deemed potential “TNTs,” or undocumented immigrants. 

“There are visa refusals from the embassies,” Fr. Ramon Jade Licuanan, the executive secretary of the bishops’ youth commission, told the Philippines News Agency. “They fear that there would be TNTs. We are on our last attempt to reconsider applications for visas of some 50 that have been denied.”

Meanwhile, only four young people were able to secure visas to join the Haitian bishops’ official delegation to Lisbon. The remainder of the delegation consists of 16 priests and six nuns.

Fr. Cassagnol Metellus, secretary of Haiti’s episcopal commission for youth ministry, said: “We believe that Haitian youth are victims of the country’s social, political, economic, and security situation.”

Fr. Paul Valéry Sakougri, national youth chaplain in Burkina Faso, told La Croix Africa that there had been meetings between the apostolic nunciature and Portugal’s consulate general.

“As a result, we were fortunate that no files were blocked among the participants in the official delegation. For the diocesan delegations, however, some were denied visas,” he said.

“However, it was much more complicated for the Nigerian members of the official delegation. Of the three from Niger, two have still not received a reply from the consulate. The applications were submitted in May.”

Fr. Clement Mevo, Cameroon’s national youth chaplain, told ACI Africa that 132 people were preparing to depart for Lisbon.

“We are now at the embassy level to obtain visas,” he said, adding that he hoped “this phase will be concluded quickly for our pilgrims.”

Javed said in his video that when he went to collect his passport, he was the 217th person to do so and no one before him had received a visa. He recalled that people were crying as they absorbed the news, including a man who may have been earning money by delivering food.

“He said: ‘I sold my bike. I had a big dream to visit the places and I want to see the pope.’ But he’s crying there,” Javed said. 

“And there are too many families, they have dreams, and they said: “This visa is for us. Who do they want to give the visa to if they don’t want to give it to us?’ And this is very sad. I feel very bad for them.”

Javed said he was confident that the group’s payment would be refunded once the event is over.

When it comes to refunds, the official WYD Lisbon 2023 website says: “If a pilgrim is denied a visa to enter Portugal, and subsequently cannot participate in World Youth Day, the group leader must provide proof of this for any group members that this applies to. The group leader must send this proof to the WYD Lisbon 2023 Local Organizing Committee.” 

“The Local Organizing Committee may refund up to 90% of the amount paid by pilgrims in this situation. Bank transaction fees will be deducted from the amount to be refunded.”

“The refund will be distributed by a single bank transfer to the bank account indicated by the group leader. Refunds will not be transferred directly to the bank accounts of each individual group member. The refunds will be completed up to ninety (90) days after the end of World Youth Day Lisbon 2023.”

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