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Twenty eight years on, people living with HIV still suffer discrimination

“It is wrong and unfair to assume that I or any other person living with HIV will get into your borders with the specific aim to transmit HIV. I am a responsible person and I am here to contribute to the fight against this epidemic, not to spread it, just like the majority of my colleagues living with HIV.”

HIV related discrimination. © The Global FundVioleta Ross from the Bolivian, Network of People Living with HIV speaks passionately about the discriminatory nature of the HIV travel restrictions still in place in many countries. “Restrictions on the entry, stay and residence of HIV positive people are discriminatory. Even migratory birds have laws and treaties that protect them while moving across borders, but not human beings living with HIV. This is injustice.”

Ross was speaking at a special side event at the Durban Review Conference, “HIV-related discrimination: Travel restrictions on the entry, stay and residence of people living with HIV.”

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, organised the event to raise awareness about the existence of this form of discrimination and to highlight how the restrictions violate basic human rights.

Some 60 countries still impose restrictions on entry, stay and residence of people based on HIV status alone. The restrictions mean that people living with HIV can be prevented from seeking asylum, employment or study abroad, from conducting business or simply visiting foreign countries for tourism. In many of these countries testing for HIV is mandatory. The results are sometimes not communicated and are often not kept confidential. Those found to be HIV positive may be immediately detained and in may cases summarily deported with no offer of treatment even though infection may have occurred in the host country.

Maria Lourdes Marin from the organisation Action for Health Initiatives (ACHIEVE) described the impact of HIV testing on migrant workers. Rahul was in his third year of working as an assistant in a tailoring shop in a foreign country. When he was renewing his work permit, he went through a medical check-up. Rahul tested positive for HIV. He was arrested and kept for 15 days in a small cell at the hospital where he had been tested, with his hands and legs chained. Rahul was then deported. He was subsequently forced away from his family and divorced his wife. Rahul finally met a self-help group of people living with HIV and was assisted to set up a small business in his country of origin.

In a world where the search for employment is now global, Rahul’s story is not uncommon. For many the result of mandatory testing is devastating, work in destination countries is no longer a possibility, incomes disappear and standards of living fall drastically.

Additionally, there is very often no support of any kind for these individuals in either the host country or their country of origin. They are frequently isolated, rejected by their family and friends and unable to access information and treatment services.

The Outcome Document of the Durban Review Conference recommends that States “guarantee universal and effective access to all health services, including medications at affordable prices, particularly those required for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of HIV/AIDS”.

In her speech to delegates at the side event, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kyung-wha Kung said, “The United Nations Secretary-General, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS together with other UN partners and a number of civil society organizations have provided leadership on this issue calling for a change in the laws that restrict the travel of persons solely on the basis of their HIV positive status.”

Kang noted that last year alone some 900 million individuals crossed national boundaries. “It is regrettable,” she said, “that HIV positive people are impeded in their enjoyment of freedom of movement given what we know about HIV and how it is transmitted.” Kang indicated that such restrictions were discriminatory and urged a concentration of efforts, “in fighting the disease of HIV, rather than the people living with it. Indeed, people living with HIV deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, and are entitled to the full enjoyment of their human rights just as much as all other rights holders.”

May 2009