Feature story

HIV travel restrictions – a primary obstacle to universal access for migrants

27 August 2011

Migrant worker Sarath shares his experiences with the panel.
Credit: UNAIDS/Kim

There are still about 50 countries, territories and areas around the world that impose some form of restriction on the entry, stay and residence of people living with HIV. Such restrictions remain a key form of discrimination, affecting the rights and freedom of movement of many migrants living with HIV and would-be migrants.

A symposium held at the 10th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific on 27 August brought together expert panellists from various countries with and without HIV-related travel restrictions to discuss the experiences faced by migrant workers and by public health systems. Their aim was to put forward recommendations and concrete policy actions needed to eliminate travel restrictions for migrants living with HIV.

Organized by the Joint United Nations Initiative on Mobility and HIV/AIDS in South East Asia (JUNIMA) and sponsored by UNAIDS, UNDP and ILO, the panel was chaired by Clifton Cortez, the UNDP Practice Team Leader on HIV, Health and Development for Asia and the Pacific.

Some 15 countries in Asia and the Pacific impose some form of restriction on the entry, stay and residence of people living with HIV. We surely can be better than that

Clifton Cortez, the UNDP Practice Team Leader on HIV, Health and Development for Asia and the Pacific

“HIV is not a condition that should determine whether you are allowed to work or not; however, some 15 countries in Asia and the Pacific impose some form of restriction on the entry, stay and residence of people living with HIV. We surely can be better than that,” said Mr Cortez.

Mr Cortez was joined by Dr Chanvit Tharathep, Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health, Ms Maria Lourdes Marin, Executive Director, Action for Health Initiatives (ACHIEVE), Inc. Philippines, and Dr Lee Hang-Sun from the Ministry of Public Health in South Korea.

Sarath, as a migrant worker, shared experience of the limitations imposed by travel restrictions with the panel: “Testing for HIV and deportation of people who test positive makes no sense neither from a public health perspective nor from a financial point of view. We generate a lot of economic benefits to both sending and host countries and usually fall between the cracks in accessing social services, especially when we are abroad.”

We generate a lot of economic benefits to both sending and host countries and usually fall between the cracks in accessing social services, especially when we are abroad

Sarath, migrant worker from the Asia-Pacific region

Reintegration of migrants

Ms Marin talked about the reintegration process when migrants deported for their HIV status return home. This is a real issue for the Philippines which sends large numbers of migrants overseas.  

“The reintegration process must be needs-based and responsive to specific contexts of migrants. It needs to be holistic, and address all the dimensions of HIV such as economic, political and psychosocial,” said Ms Marin. “To do that you need to have discussions taking into account all phases of the migration cycle, including pre-departure and post-arrival.”

Some countries hold that HIV-related travel restrictions are imposed to protect their nationals from ‘foreign’ diseases and to avoid increased healthcare costs.  This rationale was refuted by Dr Chanvit from Thailand, a country which does not impose HIV-related travel restrictions:

“By providing universal access to health care for all, including migrants, we have not experienced an overflow of the health care system by migrants. What we have seen however is that we are better able to control infectious diseases and give treatment and care to those that need it.”

Dr Lee shared the South Korea experience: “Some people in South Korea still believe that HIV is a virus that comes from abroad. I hope ICAAP will give us the opportunity to join hands with civil society and work together on addressing the misconceptions regarding HIV.”

The way forward

The panel explored a series of recommendations to eliminate HIV-related travel restrictions and to promote universal access for migrant workers living with HIV. These included:

  • Harmonize national policies on HIV and migration, promote collaboration between relevant ministries and civil society groups and support sustained bilateral and multi-country dialogues between sending and receiving countries;
  • Establish minimum labour standards and health rights for migrant workers, and ensure that there are protection and support systems for migrants in destination countries;
  • Build the capacity of Asian source countries to effectively reintegrate returning migrant workers living with HIV.

JUNIMA brings together governments (including ASEAN Secretariat), leading NGO networks, and the United Nations family, to promote universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support for migrant workers in South East Asia and southern China.