/ 27 August 2008

Travel restrictions add to HIV stigma

Restrictions prohibiting HIV-positive people from obtaining visas or permits to travel or work abroad adds to the global stigma around HIV. Christo Greyling, the global adviser for World Vision’s faith-based partnerships for HIV/Aids, can testify to this reality.

Greyling has been living with HIV since 1985 and since 1991 has been assisting faith-based communities to respond to HIV and prevent further infections.

“I spent a lot of my time in Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia so it didn’t make sense to be in the southern tip of Africa. It would make a big difference if I were close to the communities I work with.”

Greyling and his family thought relocating to the World Vision office in Singapore was a good option — until a friend who had applied for a work permit there, told him he would be required to go for an HIV test and sign a declaration stating that he had not tested positive for the disease.

Further investigation revealed that not only was this true, but foreign nationals in Singapore known to be HIV-positive were expelled.

“I was very upset because I am fighting HIV. I am trying to prevent people getting infected and now I feel like a prisoner in my own country because of my HIV status,” said Greyling.

He started looking for other countries that might serve as a regional base, including Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines and Malaysia, but ran into obstacles because of his HIV status.

He looked at places like Armenia and the United Arab Emirates but found the same restrictions in place. “That made me realise how stigmatising this is: it treats all HIV-positive people as if they are intentionally going to infect other people,” said Greyling.

About 67 countries deny the right of entry or residence to people simply because they are HIV positive.

These governments justify the decision based on the assumption that HIV-positive people will travel to their countries and spread the virus, drain healthcare resources or even die there, said Mark Heywood, director of the Aids Law Project

Such restrictions are discriminatory and curtail important life activities of people living with HIV and that of their families, said Fatima Hassan senior attorney at the Aids Law Project.

“These restrictions mean HIV- positive people cannot visit relatives, study, work abroad or do business abroad, seek or receive asylum or go on holiday simply because of their known HIV status. It is a violation of the human rights to freedom of movement, development, dignity, equality, non-discrimination, bodily integrity, confidentiality, privacy and other rights.

“These kinds of restrictions drive the epidemic underground,” said Greyling, adding that this could lead to more deaths and more infections.