As tourists around the world jet off on their annual summer breaks, people living with HIV have to think and plan extra carefully about their holiday destinations. Unknown to many, including those living with HIV, there are many countries around the world which have entry restrictions on HIV positive tourists. There are also countries which may not have explicit entry restrictions but if you are already in a one of those paranoid countries and test HIV positive, you may be deported if the immigration service get to know about it.
An interesting video report from BBC World Service looks at whether there are still health risks attached to letting travellers with HIV in, or is it just intolerance?
Although it is very clear that travel restrictions based on HIV positive status alone, including HIV mandatory testing of international travelers, has been declared discriminatory according to International guidelines on HIV and Human Rights – some countries insist on keeping the restrictions firmly in place. While it is every country’s right to have their own criteria for entry, countries that have travel restrictions are supposed to give convincing reasons why they think they need to control travel for people living with HIV. With all the progress that we have made in HIV education, prevention and treatment there are no such persuasive reasons. At a time when HIV-related stigma and discrimination are some of the main challenges in the fight against HIV and AIDS, fighting HIV related travel restrictions should be prioritised. The Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance has made a start with its campaign.
In the last few years, a number of countries, including Namibia, China and most notably the US, have lifted travel bans related to HIV. They do have to be congratulated for coming to their senses, although I personally feel that it was duplicitous of them to have the restrictions in the first place. In the case of the US, the HIV related travel ban started in 1987 until January last year. During the time of the ban, if you turned up at any port of entry in the US and were found to be HIV positive (and had not declared so or had no special visa), you were deported right away. The US was also not able to host any International AIDS conferences as long as the HIV entry restrictions were in place. However, as part of the negotiations and or perhaps as a reward for lifting the restrictions, the US is now hosting the next International AIDS conference in Washington DC in July 2012.
Winnie Ssanyu Sseruma from The Independent recalls from personal experience:
“I remember when I had to travel to the US for a UN meeting while the ban was still in place. I had to go to the US embassy and apply for a special waiver even though normally I would not need a visa. I was also supposed to declare my HIV status. As part of the interview for the waiver, I had to produce a letter from my doctor stating some really personal and intimate medical information, including the current results of my CD4 count, my viral load, and whether I was considered ‘fit to travel’. Anyone who has ever had call, schedule and to sit through an interview at the US embassy will know that it is a costly and an exasperating process, without the added burden of talking through a very personal and sensitive medical ailment.
At the port of entry in New York, I was asked why I had a special visa, when I really didn’t need a visa to begin with. I explained that I was required to have the special waiver by US law because I was HIV positive. I was immediately escorted to a secondary room for more questioning. Humiliation doesn’t even begin to describe this process. I am not aware of any other health issue that warrants this much scrutiny.
In the secondary room, there are all sorts of people who, for one reason or the other, the US immigration department feel they need more information from. I sat in this room for no less than three hours while some checks on my passport and paperwork were being done. If I’d had a connecting flight I would have missed it, and I know people who have. Once my name was called I was asked how long I was going to be in the US and what I was there for – questions which could easily be explained by all the paperwork I had already submitted. My passport was then stamped and I was told in no uncertain terms to be on my way. The criminal nature of the interrogation was completely unnecessary and demoralizing.
Since officially lifting of the ban in January 2010, I have been to the US on a few ocassions. I hoped that things would be different. Sadly, although I do not have to get a special visa anymore, the process at the point of entry in the US has stayed the same. Somebody must have forgotten to tell the law enforrcement officers in the US because they simply carry on like nothing has changed.”
It is very important to keep up the pressure on countries that continue impede the free travel of people living with HIV, and essentially treating us like criminals. We also need to remind countries like the US that if the HIV travel ban has been lifted, why does the degradation of HIV positive people by customs officers continues? Countries continuing to justify HIV related restrictions on tourists, students, migrants and employment of people living with HIV need to realise that their actions have wide-reaching negative implications related to human rights and the ability of the international community to get to grips with HIV epidemic.