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Updated: 10th October 2018 15:16

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Habitat for Humanity volunteers held for 21 hours at Indian border, refused entry

Eight volunteers headed from Canada to India to build a home for a family in need say they were held without their travel documents or luggage before being turned away at the border because they hadn't applied for "missionary visas."

Alberta volunteers say they were told they needed missionary visas and were turned away

A group of home-building volunteers from Alberta say they were turned away at the Indian border for not having missionary visas. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A group of volunteers headed from Canada to India to build a home for a family in need say they were held for 21 hours without their travel documents or luggage before being turned away at the border because they didn't have "missionary visas."

Five Calgarians and three peop​le from Lethbridge landed in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) on Oct. 5.

They all had their Canadian passports and the same visas that they say had been used by prior Habitat for Humanity groups to visit the country that were filled out correctly, said Gordon Ross, one of the volunteers.

After nearly two days in the air, the group was ready to get moving, Ross said, but they were held up at border security.

"The border guard was quite hostile … frankly right from the start," he said.

The group was questioned about the hotel they were staying at, and then told by the border officer that they had the wrong visas and he had to consult with his colleagues. Border security then took the travellers' passports and paperwork, leaving them waiting while officers consulted with each other.

"No one was very forthcoming," Ross said. "We've flown halfway around the world, almost two days of travel, we've put money toward this build for a family, Habitat India was waiting outside to pick us up."

Group told they needed missionary visas

Finally, an officer came forward to tell the group that they were missionaries — not home-building volunteers — and denied them entry.

While Habitat for Humanity does definite itself as a Christian housing charity, volunteers with the non-governmental organization (NGO) primarily work to build homes rather than spread religious ideology.

Missionary visas require a separate application process than an employment visa, which is the category used for volunteers with NGOs recognized by the Indian government. 

"We lost two days of travel on our tickets there, the ability to do the build, and our return flight," said Ross, who added the group scrambled to find tickets out of India and had to cover their return flights on their own dime.

"We acted with some patience and humour but it was a rough time."

Ross said the group was most upset that they won't be building a home for a family in need.

"I really feel sorry for the family, they're not going to get us building their house"

The Albertans decided to make the most of the situation and fly to Thailand and Vietnam for a vacation before heading home later this month.

CBC News has reached out to Habitat for Humanity Canada Global Village and the Canadian consulate in Bengaluru for comment.

With files from Shauna Smith Duncan.

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